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Smarter Food

Technology is shaping how it grows, how it tastes and how it gets to your plate

Food Technology – A healthy appetite for innovation


Scientists believe there are 140,000 varieties of cultivated rice, but no one knows the exact number. Thailand is the world's largest exporter of rice and the U.S. is the twelfth largest. Instead of 'How are you?' a typical Chinese greeting is 'Have you had rice today?

Good grains

Rice is the main food staple of more than half the world's population. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 20% of the total food energy intake for every man, woman, and child in the world comes from rice. So what if food technology could make rice a stronger crop that is more nutritious?

First, we have to study the structures of the proteins that make rice itself. The Computational Biology Research Group at the University of Washington has developed state of the art software that does just that. But with 30,000 to 60,000 different protein structures, a couple or even a dozen computers couldn't take on this task. That's why the researchers plugged into IBM's World Community Grid.

With the processing power of 167 teraflops, the World Community Grid can harness the donated and otherwise unused power from nearly one million individual PCs. Using the grid, the project can be completed in less than two years - as opposed to over 200 years using more conventional computer systems.


Chocolate: good taste is in the genes

Few things are as clear-cut as a chocolate bar. But there is a lot of science and food technology behind something so simple and sweet.

In the past several years, the cocoa industry has been hit with a series of destructive fungal diseases that have cost the world's growers an estimated US $700 million in losses every year. IBM Research, the US Department of Agriculture and Mars, Incorporated are teaming up and going straight to the source. Through their collaboration, they hope to sequence the genome that makes cocoa, the key ingredient of chocolate.

Researchers plan to use IBM's computational biology technology and expertise to develop a detailed genetic map, identifying the specific genetic traits that produce higher cocoa plant yields and resist drought or pests.

But like any sweet treat, the results of this research will be better when shared. Mars will make the genome information available for free through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA), which supports agricultural innovation for both humanitarian and small-scale commercial purposes.

70% of the world's cocoa is grown in Africa. For every $1 of cocoa imported, between one and two dollars of domestic agricultural products are used to make chocolate products. The cocoa genome consists of about 400 million base pairs. The human genome only has 3 billion base pairs

From the FARM to FORK. Up to 50% of food is lost or wasted between field and fork.
Why smarter food in the UK - Less waste. A third of the food we buy is thrown away untouched. - Local sustainability. Half the vegetables and over 95% of the fruit consumed in the UK is imported from abroad and the UK ranks amongst the 20 least self-sufficient countries. - Smarter supply chains.  Our supply chains are inefficient. In the dairy supply chain for example, £1.5 billion is wasted annually through inefficient processes. - Safer food. Food-related ill health is costing the NHS in excess of an estimated £7 billion a year and the total number of contamination incidents increased from 421 in 2000, to 1312 in 2007.

Pet food. Lettuce. Turkey. Baby food. Milk.

These are just some of the high profile recalls we've seen recently. Consumers worldwide are asking the same questions. They wonder, is their food safe? And where did it come from?

Track and trace technology, including 2D and 3D barcode and radio frequency identification (RFID), offers "farm to fork" transparency and addresses the safety concerns of consumers. But it's not just safety that's driving innovation in this space. Government regulations and industry requirements for quality and traceability are driving food producers around the world to provide more detail on products. With an increasingly global supply chain, that detail must be comprehensive and reliable. And with that detail, companies can realise added value as well, such as a streamlined distribution chain and lower spoilage rates. In fact, consumer product and retail industries lose about $40 billion annually, or 3.5% of their sales, due to supply chain inefficiencies.

Super market

Butchers at Germany's METRO Future Store (US) do more than dress roasts. They also apply RFID smart labels in a solution designed with IBM. Each package is identified and recorded when it is placed into the refrigerated display case, which is fully equipped with readers and antennas to scan the label of each product as it goes in, as it sits on the shelf and as it goes back out with a consumer. The information helps the store maintain fresh products, control the environment in which they are stored and manage inventory levels with realtime sales data.

Farm to fork

The average meal has been through a complex supply chain by the time it reaches the dinner table. Dozens of companies are involved in the production of just a single rib eye steak. In the Canadian Province of Manitoba (US), IBM helped develop full traceability solution, providing business consulting and project management services, working more than 16 supply chain partners, including beef and pork producers, animal feed ingredient producers, feed manufacturers, farmers, processing plants, truckers and a retail grocery chain.

Using Global Traceability Network (GTNet) software from IBM Business Partner TraceTracker, Manitoba's project shows it is possible to securely and accurately gather and crunch data about a piece of meat from a variety of sources and share that information, at any step in the process.

Mapping meat

Norway's largest food supplier, Nortura BA, is implementing a first-of-a-kind solution to help with food safety and supply chain optimisation. To achieve full traceability, IBM is working with Matiq (US), the IT subsidiary of Nortura. Poultry and meat products will be packaged with RFID chips to help ensure that they are kept in optimal conditions as they travel from farms to store shelves.

Interest in animal tracking is not new to the Norwegian food industry. The nation's government set a 2010 deadline for standards and policy regarding food traceability as part of its e-Traceability (eSporing) programme, intended to increase food safety through visibility from the farm to the store.