What Is the ‘Internet of Food’?

THNK/ Cisco/Tesco Internet of Food

Source: THNK.org

What is the “internet of food”? According to Cisco’s (NASDAQ:CSCO) Nicola Villa, interviewed by Fast Company, it will a whole network of sensors, systems, and devices that ensure food stays safe and fresh at all stages of the supply chain.

In a May post on Cisco’s blog, Villa wrote about a partnership between Cisco and THNK, an Amsterdam-based “school of creative leadership” and incubator. At THNK, Cisco is collaborating with British supermarket chain Tesco (NASDAQ:TESO) to conceptualize solutions that apply an Internet of Things mindset to the process of food distribution. Blogging about the origin of the partnership with THNK, Villa wrote:

“We got down to the serious business of ‘hacking’ some key global issues, together with our friends at THNK. One of those has evolved into a Cisco/THNK partnership challenge, in which we will share Cisco’s expertise on the Internet of Everything (IoE) to solve some global problems around food safety and food distribution.”

THNK’s website reports that representatives of Cisco, Tesco, and other participants in THNK’s Class 5 working on the internet of food challenge are considering how to improve the safety and transparency of the ways that food is produced, delivered, and consumed. THNK writes:

“The growing role of sensor-enabled infrastructure touches everything from farming, to manufacture to shopping. The Internet of Everything (IoE) is poised at the nexus of how sensors, data, people, and processes interact and can ultimately transform the way food fits into our future. And there are numerous as-yet unexplored questions around how cloud computing, for example, or big data and analytics may change the way the whole value chain functions.

“We have asked our participants to consider these elements as well as global strain on food production, efficiency in the system, safety from the farm to the table, the impact of climate change on yield, the GMO debate, market forces around more premium organic or local food, and how the sharing economy is impacting food.”

Fast Company’s Neal Ungerleider reports that Cisco, Tesco, and other participants will present the concepts in September when they’ll also evaluate how to incorporate the ideas into their companies’ business plans. So what form are those ideas likely to take? What are the big ideas for the internet of food?

A marine biologist Ayana Johnson is creating infrastructure that would enable consumers to track their food back to the individual farm where it originated. Similar ideas include a comprehensive supply chain tracking system — “similar to the one FedEx uses to ship packages,” writes Ungerleider — to track food sources. Other concepts see technology being used to prevent “food counterfeiting,” such as the mislabeling of seafood, while software company Agralogics provides a data tracking platform for food producers, enabling the company to “use cutting-edge data science to drive operational efficiencies for the food ecosystem.”

An Oakland group called Kijani Grows produces Arduino-based “smart aquaponics” gardens that use sensors and microprocessors to connect gardens to the cloud and social networks. Vineyards are monitored with analytics, and cows are geographically tracked to with ear tags. Eventually, sensors will tell you when your milk has gone bad, how much time is left for your tofu, and when last week’s produce is no longer safe to eat — and your grocery store will be equipped with the same sensors, plus an integrated analytics system to optimize inventory.

The Kauffman Foundation wrote in February that food demand is expected to increase 70 percent by 2050, and agriculture technology will be critical “to increase productivity in the face of significant environmental constraints and challenges.” That’s where the organization sees opportunity for innovation, by big players like Cisco and Tesco or by individual entrepreneurs and small groups currently starting the internet of foods movement. Though distribution, which seems to be the main focus of THNK participants, is only a part of the larger agriculture system, it’s also a part of the “integrated farming systems” that Kauffman predicts will incorporate sensors, smart equipment, and genetics to track plants and animals. 

Sensors, barcodes, and GPS will enable every shipment of food to be tracked by location, monitored for freshness, and tested for safety. That tracking will enable the optimization of distribution, and help prevent bacteria outbreaks. Fast Company reports that the process of implementing sensors and building the analytics systems to keep track of them is already underway, and those systems integrate with companies’ current methods of keeping records and managing inventory.

Villa wrote in his blog post that the goal of “accelerating digital disruption to transform markets is critical,” and that’s true not only for tech giants like Cisco, but also for food producers and distributors that have a keen interest in cutting waste and improving food quality. It will be interesting to see what concepts Cisco and Tesco reveal at THNK — and how much closer they’ll get us to deploying sensors and connected devices to farms, warehouse, shipping containers, grocery stores and to every step along your food’s way to the local produce aisles.

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