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Wasting away: Wireless IoT tackles global food waste crisis

Garbage depository with wheel loader workingEnough food is produced each year to comfortably feed the world’s 8 billion population. Yet, in 2023 at least 345 million people face high levels of food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme. The true number could be twice that. Between harvest and home, one-third of all the food produced is lost or wasted—about 2.5 billion tonnes—the weight of a couple of Mount Everests.

It's a crisis that essentially goes unseen by the fortunate minority, but food waste is not only a humanitarian issue but an ecological one too. If food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases behind the U.S. and China. According to the Water Footprint Network, throwing away a single burger wastes about the same amount of water as a 90-minute shower.

If the world's population tips over 9 billion by 2050 as expected, it will require an increase of 70 percent in food availability, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). To reverse the waste, we need to know where it happens.

Why and where we waste

Where the waste occurs in the food supply chain is very different depending on where you live. According to FAO data, in Europe, North America, and industrialized parts of Asia and Oceania, the bulk of waste occurs either during agricultural production or once the food is in the hands of the consumer.

In sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of Asia and South America, consumer waste is comparatively modest, but food lost during processing is huge. The statistics highlight the need to improve processing technologies in developing regions and household food waste in industrialized countries. Meanwhile, agriculture, post-harvest, food distribution, service, and retail, can all up their game too. Wireless technology is now playing its part.

Down on the farm

Smart farming—using data and connectivity supported by AI and analytics—is helping farmers make better and more precise decisions. Farmers can get a granular picture of their crops and livestock using a combination of connectivity solutions, sensors, autonomous machines, and drones. For example, cellular IoT-connected crop humidity sensors can communicate with sprinklers to deliver exact amounts of water to crops when needed, improving yields.

Vertical farming—indoor installations where plants are stacked vertically on shelves in an enclosed and controlled environment—use sensor network and connected solutions to automate control and monitor key parameters such as humidity, fertilization, temperature, and light intensity. According to Science Focus magazine, the result is ten times the yield for a given land area.

Preventing distribution losses with Bluetooth LE and cellular IoT

Supply chain food losses due to inadequate refrigeration are estimated to total tens of billions of dollars, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). To mitigate against cold chain transportation and storage losses, Bluetooth LE- and cellular IoT-connected sensors are now commonplace. Temperature and relative humidity sensors are ideal for applications where precise climate control is essential for ensuring product quality. Paired with cellular IoT or Bluetooth LE connectivity, these sensors can continuously monitor temperature and humidity and relay the data to the cloud in near real-time.

Not only does this provide an end-to-end data trail to ensure poorly refrigerated product never reaches the consumer, but it also allows logistics operators to take remedial action in the event temperature or humidity levels fall outside of acceptable tolerances, and save a cargo that might otherwise have reached its destination spoiled.

More wireless IoT in store

Traditionally retailers’ efforts to offload perishable items near their sell-by date have been about as sophisticated as marking down the price and hoping consumers buy them. Two ways technology can help combat this waste is by getting the food to the shelf faster and using dynamic pricing.

Major U.S. retailers are employing automation and software solutions so deliveries are organized in shelving sequence, making it possible to be delivered just-in-time from the distribution warehouse to the retail floor without delay. Such systems require end-to-end investment in sensors, connected networks, location services, and machine learning, but if proved effective, they could dramatically reduce waste. Other tech-savvy retailers are now deploying Wi-Fi-connected shelf cameras and cellular IoT-based remote monitoring to ensure shelves and products remain well stocked. With cloud-based AI models, staff can replenish stock as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, dynamic pricing is one of the most effective ways of reducing waste. Previously that required physically changing price labels, but wireless technology has now transformed pricing for physical retailers.

Comprised of a cloud platform, gateways, and Bluetooth LE-powered shelf labels, pricing commands can be sent wirelessly from a web-based dashboard to store-located gateways, from which point commands are relayed to smart labels using Bluetooth connectivity. Dynamic displays can include pricing, product information, barcodes, and QR codes and can reduce waste and enhance the customer experience and retailer profitability.

Smart labels can also be used for reporting back to the gateway and the cloud platform, allowing retailers to remotely monitor and manage their stock and the precise positioning of products on store shelves.

Cutting consumer waste

And consumers can do their bit too. If you regularly throw away vegetables that are starting to turn to a liquid state, or have had to bin a meal that has been incinerated to carbon in the bottom of a pan, technology could help. Wi-Fi-powered fridge cams and connected apps take a photo of the contents of your fridge every time the door is opened. From the app, users can check the contents of their fridge when they are out shopping to avoid doubling up on items they may already have. The app can also act as a ready reckoner for food about to go out of date.

Using sensor technology—such as temperature monitoring and thermal imaging—combined with ML can turn dumb pots and pans into assistant chefs. Wireless cooking devices can collect data, interpret it using proprietary algorithms, and automatically adjust to perfect cooking temperatures and times.

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