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Food traceability and safety: opportunities for AI and Blockchain technologies

Food safety is a public health priority. That’s according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates that 600 million people (almost 1 in 10) fall sick each year after eating contaminated food, resulting in roughly 420,000 deaths.

Food safety affects the entire agriculture and nutrition supply chain, from the use of chemicals on farms to the challenge of food waste at the retail and consumer level. Globalisation has increased incidents of contamination and led to more foodborne illness, food safety scandals and health scares among consumers.

That said, some regions are more advanced than others, with regulatory bodies in place in more developed countries to ensure strict compliance. The Canadian Public Health Association notes that “large-scale farming and food processing as well as access to foods from around the world all contribute to increased opportunities for contamination. These trends make it harder to trace the source of a foodborne illness than outbreaks linked to local food sources.”

So, while the food industry has come a long way in terms of food safety thanks to technological advancements, detection tools and strict regulatory requirements, ongoing issues and recalls across the globe signal there is still a long way to go — and agritech will play a critical role in achieving a well-fed world.

Food safety regulatory bodies for select regions and countries are:

These regulatory bodies have a responsibility to ensure consumers have access to safe foods and agritech offers plenty of opportunities to improve different segments of the agriculture value chain, from production and processing, to packing and distribution, to storage and preparation.

Examples of technologies expected to impact food safety

Recent research by Frost and Sullivan on technologies enabling food safety expects the following technologies to enable food safety in the next few years:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Blockchain
  • Gene editing
  • Point-of-Care devices
  • Intelligent packaging
  • Advanced encapsulation
  • Biosensors
  • Printed electronics
  • Synthetic biology
  • Thermosonication

Traceability will be the main contributor to farm safety at the farm or production level, as it makes it easier to track the origin of food, while AI and Blockchain will provide opportunities at the farm level.

Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain technologies

AI is already on the verge of revolutionising the agriculture industry. Autonomous farming equipment incorporates sophisticated AI systems and sensor technologies to understand their surroundings and the needs of farm owners to fulfil designated agriculture goals. Additionally, AI enables remote monitoring of conditions to ensure safety and improved quality of the final agricultural produce.

An example of AI helping with food safety is IBM’s collaboration with Cornell University, a leader in dairy research, where the technology is leveraged to gain insights into how microorganisms interact within an environment to reduce the chance that the global milk supply is impacted by safety breaches.

Blockchain, meanwhile is a digital immutable ledger that can keep a record of transactions in a database synchronized and shared among members of a peer-to-peer network. Its implementation in food production and supply chains can enable increased levels of transparency and control in maintaining food safety. It can also help trace the origins of raw materials and ingredients used in the production of a particular food at any point in the supply chain, from the farm to the end consumer.

Additionally, Blockchain can be adopted by farmers to monitor crop health via the adoption of precision farming. Multiple data points such as the use of inputs are measured using an Internet of Things (IoT) platform, which are then fed into the blockchain to monitor crop health.

An example of this is when Cargill piloted a secure blockchain solution in 2017 that allowed consumers to track the turkey they purchased for Thanksgiving. Last year, HSBC and ING Bank successfully executed a live trade finance transaction for Cargill using R3’s Corda scalable blockchain platform.

Conclusion

While AI is already making a difference in the agriculture industry, blockchain technology is still in its infancy, thus offering big opportunities for the industry. According to Frost and Sullivan’s research, any deployment of blockchain in food safety is yet to prove its value in terms of a successful scalable deployment, but this is expected to change as innovation continues to prove

its importance in global food safety and traceability. Increased adoption of both AI and Blockchain will strengthen food safety infrastructure, leading to less contamination and fewer mass recalls.

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