A consortium consisting of food value chain companies, researchers, government and regulatory agencies and technology providers is hoping to use the Internet of Things and other innovative technologies to improve food supply sustainability and profitability.

Dubbed the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre (Food Agility CRC), its mission is to “tackle real food industry problems working with innovative digital technology and talented people to make a difference.”

The group has recognised that digital technology is the key to improving food industry outcomes, and will focus on and create projects based on four key tenets:

  • Helping Australia’s food producers provide the right products, for the right markets at the right time by deploying faster real-time data intelligence and predictive analytics
  • Leveraging Australia’s reputation for high quality and safe food while cutting the cost of red tape and shaping a clean and green Aussie food brand overseas
  • Increasing access to finance by leveraging data to provide better finance access and reduction of environmental risk
  • Building a highly productive and skilled future workforce using decision support systems to scale knowledge across the value chain, building ‘data farming’ capabilities and leveraging advances in technology

Australian agriculture start-up The Yield is a member of this research group, and its founding director Dr Michael Briers is spearheading the Food Agility campaign.

Briers is currently on the hunt for partners to join the group and to also obtain $50 million in CRC government funding to match the investment made by its commercial and research partners.

Briers spoke to IoT Hub about the initiative, and his plans to use the Internet of Things to enact positive change in Australia’s food industry.

“What we’ve been trying to do is find ways to encourage collaboration between the commercial, research and government sectors to advance food and agriculture research,” he said.

Briers has long been an advocate of the “triple helix” of business, research and government collaboration, and as founding CEO of the Knowledge Economy Institute (KEi), he dedicates much of his time promoting the idea and implementing it where possible.

He is also a firm believer in the transformative ability of the IoT for all industries, and for the food industry in particular.

“The thing that people often don’t think about with the Internet of Things is that it promises a systematic way in which you can measure things in the environment, both in terms of what you want to measure and where you will perform the measurement,” he said.

“This is true particularly in a farming context, where the positioning of sensors is really important.”

Briers said the commercial oyster farm solution created by The Yield is indicative of the ability of IoT to provide benefits to businesses, government regulators and researchers through collaboration.

He’s hoping that this collaboration carries across into the Food Agility group, and he believes that such a working relationship in itself constitutes innovation.

“As far as we know, this is the first nationally coordinated plan where technology and service providers are working alongside the agricultural industry,” he said.

“It might sound simple, but there’s a massive, multilateral consortium which includes a number of prominent players from the technology sector and the financial services sector, as well as representatives from a number of agricultural verticals, such as dairy, cotton and fisheries, and a number of universities participating from around the country.”

Briers is looking to leverage Australia’s reputation around the world as a producer of quality food products, and to be more adaptable to the dynamic nature of the export market.

“Australia makes enough food for about 60 million people, so the vision here is to not only increase production but also improve the quality of our food production,” he said.

“We also want to understand what consumer preferences might look like in target export countries and feeding that down the supply chain for farmers at the other end to change the way they breed or produce their goods that can then respond to those changing market preferences.”

Creating a digital food audit trail

Briers has observed that consumers are becoming more educated about the source of their food supply, and are placing increasing demands on the value chain to ensure quality and truth in the source and delivery of food.

“Customer concerns centre around ensuring that the advertised source of food is in fact accurate, and that the circumstances in which that food was created and delivered is also correctly reported,” he said.

He said that IoT could be used to address these concerns through the creation of a 'digital audit trail'.

“The digital audit trail could apply to the supply chain in areas such as use by dates.

“We currently have products stamped with use by dates, but that doesn’t necessarily correspond with how that product has been transported to a retail outlet.”

Briers said that perishables transported in ideal conditions could theoretically extend their use by dates beyond what is labelled on the products. Conversely, those products transported in less than ideal circumstances would shorten their shelf life, and therefore invalidate the labelled date.

“There are sensors now that change colours when they’ve been exposed to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time that could be used to indicate the transport quality of food,” he said.

He said the challenge for the Food Agility consortium will be lifting production, lifting food quality, finding ways to assist farmers to add value and therefore improve their margins, and proving the quality and authenticity of products when they arrive in foreign markets.