Securing a Robust Supply Chain: Strategies for Food Brands and Retailers from Farm to Table

October 2, 2023


Rosa Schmidt

Securing a Robust Supply Chain: Strategies for Food Brands and Retailers from Farm to Table

The ground beneath our feet has fed us for thousands of years, and during that time we have rapidly evolved and scaled how we produce and distribute food. With the impact of climate change and rising costs of production contributing to the increase in the price of the food we buy, the current food system is not effectively meeting the needs of humanity and requires a transformation that considers socio-cultural dynamics, equity concerns, and, notably, the requirements of the most disadvantaged individuals who allocate the largest portion of their income to food.  

It has never been more important to leverage technology to help us sustainably produce food by reducing the use of water, synthetic inputs and employing practices that improve soil health.

This was a key topic of discussion at the recent World Agri-tech Innovation Summit in London, where players from across the industry came to demonstrate and discuss how we can tackle the problem of shifting our food production system to one that is sustainable for the years to come.

The increasing value of water

Irrigation has been one of the key innovations that has enabled the expansion of humans to new regions, we have become masters of directing and applying water. This innovation has also created a dependency and a conflict of where water should be prioritized to, for direct human consumption or for use in agriculture. Increasing frequency of droughts is causing there to be less and less water available for irrigation, meaning that we need to find more water efficient ways of producing food.

For food companies, the reduction in the use of water for raw material production is starting to become as important as reducing their carbon footprint. They are looking for technologies to help accurately monitor how much water the crops they purchase are using in the field and enable their farmer suppliers to optimise their irrigation and employ practices that are more water use efficient.

Ensuring a resilient Supply Chain

Food supply chains represent intricate systems encompassing fields, factories, warehouses, and storage facilities, all working together to transform raw crops into readily consumable products. These supply chains encounter a diverse array of challenges, which can be disrupted by even minor processes.

Taking a closer look at the example of potatoes, the production of mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, roast potatoes, potato chips, and French fries that we find in supermarkets and restaurants demands a consistent and dependable supply chain to ensure that people have access to the food they desire when they desire it. However, achieving this is easier said than done, as a multitude of factors come into play to guarantee the presence of our favourite meals on our plates. These factors include extreme weather events, political instability, labour shortages, and unexpected incidents such as a ship blocking a major trade route, all of which can significantly impact supply chains.  

Fast food has played a pivotal role in transforming the global agricultural landscape, prompting companies with substantial environmental footprints like PepsiCo, McDonald’s, and McCain to take an active interest in monitoring and mitigating long-term environmental risks throughout their supply chains, spanning from production to consumption. One of their key strategies involves promoting regenerative agriculture among farmers. This farming approach enhances soil carbon content, increasing the soil's water-holding capacity and rendering it and the crops more resilient to heat and drought. Additionally, the reduced use of synthetic inputs contributes to a lower carbon footprint associated with potato cultivation.

How can we ensure a better understanding of croplands and plan more securely despite ever-changing weather conditions and climate change?

Idaho, the leading potato producer in the United States, supplies over 6 million tonnes to prominent fast-food chains and beyond. Over the past two years, hot and dry weather has led to a decline in potato production. According to the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation, the impact of the potato shortage varies by location, ranging from a significant challenge to no problem at all. In 2022, it wais anticipated that the potato shortage wouldill ameliorate as cooler weather sets in and fall harvests begin. Looking ahead to 2023, despite facing obstacles like hail and heavy rain, the year seems to have favoured potato farming, with crops thriving despite adverse weather conditions. With approximately a month and a half remaining until the harvest concludes, the ultimate outcome will determine whether this year lives up to the optimistic forecasts.

Fields in Burley, Idaho August 2022

Temperatures above 28 degrees Celsius can have negative impacts on potatoes, particularly varieties like the Idaho Russet Burbank, which is extremely sensitive to temperature changes.  Increases in temperatures can alter the starches and sugars within the potato, which can result in discolored French fries.

This thermal-satellite image captured in August 2022 provides information about the land surface temperature of a specific area near Burley (Idaho).  The air temperature during August 2022 was frequently above 32 degrees Celsius in this region, which can have a negative impact on potatoes.  In this image we can see the importance of irrigation for maintaining cooler crop temperatures.  Those fields that are well irrigated are maintaining LST in the mid 20s, whereas those fields without sufficient water and vegetation cover are above 40 degrees.  This information is critical to enable modeling of the projected yield, starch and sugar content of the potatoes. Empowering purchasers to assess if they will receive an adequate supply of potatoes to the specifications they require in this region.

By monitoring and managing heat stress, farmers can reduce the risk of crop losses due to extreme heat events through optimising irrigation and applying stress mitigating biological stimulants. These losses can disrupt the supply chain, impacting both local and international markets. Thermal data helps in early intervention and mitigation, safeguarding the potato supply chain's stability.

How do we monitor crop water usage and stress in a scalable way that will empower us to make food production more sustainable?

Ideally, we could have trillions of thermometers and moisture sensors across all of the fields in the world, providing continuous data on what is happening with our crops. The cost and labour required for such a monitoring system prohibits this, which is why we need to look to space for the answer.

Satellite monitoring of crops is providing us with frequent, high-resolution data of crop health, but our measurements of temperature and water usage are currently limited in their spatial resolution and revisit frequency.

At the recent World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London, representatives from Unilever, Tesco and Sainsbury’s all stated that security of supply is their number one priority, and that frequent, accurate and reliable data is key to achieving that.  Land Surface Temperature data from celestR provides purchasers with both field level and country level insights into the abiotic stress factors that can impact their supply and identify the growers that are most effective at managing that crop stress, from which they can learn and share that knowledge and experience to growers around the world.

For more information and use cases, visit constellr.com