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Smarter Food

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

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.

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, 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.

Super market

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.

Only 1% of impoted foods are inspected before they ener the U.S. Over 50% of all food produced globally ends up going to waste. In the EU, salmonella infections alone cost an estimated 3 billion.


Rice cultivation can get much smarter if we analyze rice genetics using food technology.

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 we 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.


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.

Cocoa facts. Source: World Cocoa Foundation


Percentage of global cocoa production by country.

Cocoa hasn't enjoyed the same research focus as other major crops such as corn, wheat and rice. But it's a powerful driver in the world's agricultural marketplace. 70% of the world's cocoa is produced in Africa, making the product a cornerstone of life on the continent. And while cocoa is not a major crop in the United States, for every dollar of cocoa imported, between one and two dollars of domestic agricultural products are used in the manufacture of chocolate products.

Watch the video The Science of Sweet: IBM Research—the world's largest commercial lab, in collaboration with Mars—the world's largest chocolate company, and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, are teaming up to safeguard the world's chocolate supply and help the agricultural community worldwide.

Conversations for a Smarter Planet

Even in tough economic times, chocolate provides one of life's simple and inexpensive pleasures. But the next time you savor a bite, think of this: that sweet treat is the product of a vast global supply chain that includes shippers, processors, marketers, delicate natural habitats and 6.5 million farmers. For many of them, your minor indulgence comes with major consequences.

Cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate, is the base of an intricate global system of people, families and communities who depend upon cocoa for their livelihood—a system that supplies millions of people around the world with more than 3 million tons of chocolate every year.

The cocoa plant itself is so fragile it only grows within a narrow geographical band around the equator. It takes nearly five years for a cocoa tree to produce its first beans. And more than a third of the world's cocoa crop is lost every year to fungal infestations, boring insects, disease and drought.

This $700 million loss has a major impact on developing nations in West Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America, which produce more than 90% of the world's supply.

A smarter food system would help farmers improve the quality and quantity of their crops and facilitate sustainability for future generations. And that's exactly the goal of an ambitious project spearheaded by Mars, Incorporated, the world's largest chocolate company; the USDA's Agricultural Research Service; and IBM.

Together, we hope to sequence and analyse the entire cocoa genome, which consists of some 400 million base pairs of DNA. By combining computational biology with supercomputing expertise, researchers can sift through massive amounts of biological data to uncover genetic patterns that could lead to hardier plants, more abundant harvests and smarter farming practices. The resulting genetic information will be made freely available through the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture, helping farmers around the world grow new plants that are more disease resistant and require less water, fewer pesticides and chemical fertilizers, yielding better-tasting beans.

And if we can grow smarter cocoa, we can also grow smarter corn, grains and soybeans. Just imagine the impact of smarter rice—the main food source of more than half the world's population, making up 20% of the total food energy intake for every man, woman and child on earth. (Actually, that's something IBM is working on, too—using our World Community Grid to study the structures of the proteins that make up the building blocks of rice.)

Since the dawn of agriculture, farmers have sought hardier crops and higher yields. On a smarter planet, the infusion of intelligence can improve yields and diversification, reduce costs and inefficiencies, and create more economic opportunity for everyone involved. Which would be sweet, indeed.

Let's build a smarter planet.