A healthy appetite for innovation
Food is as fundamental as it gets. And our relationship with it tells a rich and diverse story. Just 10 years ago, most consumers were focused on eating a diet low in fat. Biotechnology was extremely limited in its application and considered somewhat dangerous. And few people knew what organic meant or why it mattered.
Today, the picture is one of heightened challenges. Food prices are soaring. Shortages have sparked unrest the world over. And every year, 10 million people die of hunger and hunger-related diseases. At the same time, consumers are hungrier than ever for information about their food. They are better informed about nutrition and more aware of the environmental and societal impacts of everything they buy. In fact, according to an IBM Institute for Business Value survey, two of every five US and UK consumers say safety concerns dictate what food they will—and won't—purchase.
So what does IBM have to do with food?
When Cyclone Nargis struck in May 2008, the people of Myanmar lost an estimated one-third of their rice supply. On the other side of the globe, investigators in the United States were baffled by a mysterious salmonella outbreak. Infecting more than 1,300 people, the incident cost tomato growers more than US $100 million. These events illustrate the vulnerability of the food supply chain as well as the fragility of food supplies in general. The world needs stronger, more resilient produce and grains and a smarter, more robust food chain to transport them from farm to fork.
With innovative digital technology and powerful solutions, IBM is making sure food is traced properly as it passes though an increasingly complex global supply chain. IBM is also making that food heartier through biological research.
The future of food starts today.
Rice is the main food staple of more than half the world's population. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization 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 we could make rice—a dietary staple for most of the world—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.
Good taste is in the genes
Few things are as clear-cut as a candy bar. But there is a lot of science 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.
Do you know where that's been?
Pet food. Lettuce. Peanut butter. Baby food. Milk. These are just some of the high profile recalls we've seen in the last year. Consumers worldwide are worried-and rightly so. 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 realize 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.
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, 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.
Norway's largest food supplier, Nortura BA, is implementing a first-of-a-kind solution to help with food safety and supply chain optimization. To achieve full traceability, IBM is working with Matiq, 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) program, intended to increase food safety through visibility from the farm to the store.
Butchers at Germany's METRO Future Store 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 real-time sales data.