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How the Internet of Things impacts the food supply chain

As the global requirement for food continues to face significant pressure, the deployment of new technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing promise to solve a lot of the issues that organisations encounter across the supply chain.

High-level schematic of an IoT architecture

The population base is forecast to expand by more than 1 billion people by 2035, with demands for higher quality and specialised foods from increasingly wealthy consumers adding more strain to the entire supply chain. Regional and global phenomena such as climate change (e.g. droughts, flash flooding, and desertification) and socio-economic shifts (e.g. urbanisation) will add even more pressure.

The requirement for transparency and compliance have become of critical importance to businesses to maintain quality of food and minimise food waste.

Advances in consumer technology and the rise in social media have added new dimensions with consumers capable of broadcasting their sentiments (like and dislikes, as well as facts or pseudo-facts on foodstuffs) to followers and hold food suppliers to account in public.

How can IoT benefit the food supply chain?

The aim of the Rentokil Initial commissioned research by Quocirca* is to explore current understanding, perceptions and usage of the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing across the food supply chain.

The research also aims to identify where food professionals feel they can benefit the most from this approach.

Report highlights


Understanding of IoT

  • 28.25% stated that they had a deep understanding of IoT, while 36.75% said they have no real knowledge or only a basic knowledge.
  • Close to 60% of the respondents indicated that their organisations had some sort of involvement with IoT and that they were working on ways of understanding the potential impacts, either by developing road maps or piloting projects.
  • Just over 20% of interviewees were expecting an impact on their organisation within the coming 12 months.
  • Only a small number (2.5%) of respondents expect to deploy more than a thousand IoT devices – yet many will already have more than this in their existing environment.

More awareness and understanding of the IoT is required to deal with the complexities of emerging value chains so that organisations can remain competitive in their markets.

  • Most respondents, just under 40%, saw the deployment of IoT in relatively simple environmental measures such as the monitoring of temperature and humidity levels.
  • More complex applications such as monitoring the movements of goods and equipment scored significantly lower at 8%.

Of highest concern to organisations are security and data privacy issues.

  • The research highlights that the use of the public cloud is the best way to ensure that organisations extract value out of the IoT.
  • 35% of the respondents stated that none of their systems were using the public cloud, while 40% declared that some of their systems are cloud based, but not business critical systems.

Dealing with cyclical problems and alerting on immediate issues are seen as the best applications for new technologies.

  • Producing automated reports was the lowest rated answer when asked how the deployment of connected technologies and IoT would be best served to ensure food safety from pest activity by.
  • The same question for hygiene emphasised the requirement to adhere to hand hygiene standards and prevent the spread of contaminants.

Having enough data to rapidly and effectively deal with an infestation or hygiene incident was ranked highest in importance, while being notified about a potential incident ranked lowest.

  • To manage pest related risks currently one third of the interviewees rely on a proactive manuals process. 19% rely on third party support.
  • For hygiene a similar picture emerged with one third citing pro-active monitoring, but 19% relying on basic hygiene training for the employees to manage risk.

For investment into new technologies to manage food safety, the end-to-end tracking and traceability of goods was viewed as the most favourable.

  • Automated reporting for compliance purposes was the least favoured investment choice.
  • The function of reporting in more detail highlighted the preference of respondents to get their data via an app on a mobile device, with reports being pushed via an app and paper reports received the lowest scor

Current and future applications of IoT

The research identified some of the current and future applications of the IoT, and confirms that technology will play an increasingly bigger role throughout the farming process from planting through to harvest.

thinning machine
On the farm

Sensing and monitoring technologies will guide farmers to the optimal deployment of their efforts, with additional support from the use of drones, especially for larger farms.

The sharing of data will allow foodstuffs to be handled much more efficiently from the start.

Logistics and warehousing

In logistics and warehousing, IoT methodologies are already applied to a greater extent but still viewed as a key component in going forward.

The deployment by warehousing facilities to maximise density and effectiveness, with spatial zoning by temperature or product type, using IoT devices will increase.

Food processing

Food processing will remain concerned with all aspects of food safety. Innovative monitoring and sensing solutions will see an increased deployment, to support transparency and compliance. With a broader remit, the difficulty will lie in determining the financial priorities for future investments.

Food retail

In retail, the picture around IoT becomes more complex, with customer facing considerations and operational requirements, which include compliance, to deal with hygiene and pest control issues.

The entire food supply chain needs to commit to share data in manageable formats to allow for end-to-end visibility.

The use of the cloud through a third party to manage large volumes of data, and provision accessibility and security, is the way forward.

By embracing both the IoT and the cloud, members of the food supply chain will gain the most benefit.

IoT report summary

The report concludes that IoT and cloud computing are viewed as major enablers for the food supply chain.

Collaboration and sharing not only internally but with third parties will drive innovation.

The only constant challenge throughout will be risk — a factor that will change in complexity and appearance, but will never go away.

* Research details

The unique insight is based on interviews with 400 respondents who have responsibility for food safety and hygiene across the food supply chain in four countries.

One hundred interviews were each carried out in Australia, China, the UK and the US with an even spread across the four components of the food supply chain: farms, logistics/warehousing, food processing and food retail companies.

The interviews took place during September and October 2016.

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