Everyday there are headlines galore that mention Covid 19, somehow trying to promote their products and services as the most appropriate in light of the pandemic. Some linkages are clearly a stretch; but several do make sense. What is not in doubt though is that supply systems around the world have been impacted; from toilet tissue to food products, nothing has been spared. So, what's my point?
Mass disruption, chaos and breakdown have a compelling way of focusing attention on the weak links in any system. Our country's food supply system is a case in point. The crisis situation brought to the fore all the systemic weaknesses, but, also pointed to its resiliency; by and large people were able to find food in supermarkets. Bravo to all those that made and continue to make that happen.
From a crisis also emerge learnings and opportunities. Mass disruption and chaos forces attention on what is not working. Images of millions of animals being euthanized, tanker loads of milk being poured down drains, and entire fields being plowed over just as they were ready for harvest are scenes that we will not easily erase from our collective memories. Better visibility into Supply and Demand Channels could have enabled quicker and more precise adjustment and reduced this wastage. Policy measures, investment in new technology and programs are the need of the hour. There has been much discussion and round tables around these themes, and some progress; but insufficient. Technology, most certainly, is part of the answer.
A further issue when we talk about the perishable food supply, particularly of leafy greens is contamination and spoilage. With FSMA (Food Safety Modernization Act, 2011) now fully in play, the emphasis has shifted to avoidance and holding participants in the supply chain accountable and responsible. The Bioterrorism Act mandates what we know as 'one step back and one step forward' record keeping, and section 204 of the FSMA requires the FDA to designate foods for which additional record-keeping requirements are appropriate and necessary to protect public health, and to establish those record-keeping requirements.
There are two issues with this. One is that those records are mostly paper documents. Second, leafy greens have a very short shelf life; by the time we get around to compiling all those paper based one step events into a complete thread of information, the produce has mostly been consumed. So, to protect the consumer, this leads to pre-emptive recalls or broad advisories to not consume, for example, Romaine lettuce. You can imagine the domino effect of this; all the lettuce on supermarket shelves, in transportation, in distribution centers and wholesalers, pack houses and whats in the ground is all destroyed. Impacts the next crop too! On the regulatory front, the FDA's Food Policy and Response Division has made welcome moves towards a New Era of Smarter Food Safety. This initiative seeks to kick start application of Technology to improve Traceability, or Visibility.
Whilst all the movement towards more technology in Food Safety and Food Supply Chain is welcome news, there seems to be a singular blind spot in all this. Food Retail and Food Service apply technology in their supply chain for their own benefit, and rightly so. But the tendency has been to push the cost of this back to the farmer as a cost of doing business with the larger players. Whilst farmers do comply, they derive scant benefit from these technology initiatives. If we are to truly harvest the full benefits of systemic investments in technology, we have to consider benefit to the farmer.
The farm is where the backend records on the crop, things like water quality, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer, farm worker health checks etc. can be linked to the harvesting information and further downstream data like temperature, time, date, and location. This linkage would provide huge gains in Visibility and faster Root Cause Analysis in the event of a disruption or contamination. The farmer could benefit greatly if this linkage provided visibility into changes in demand, disruptions and breakdowns. But how is the already financially distressed farmer going to afford this additional investment? This is where I feel we need shine some light; some policy support. How can we support and encourage farmers to embrace this?
Perhaps a Technology Investment Credit or subsidy? A temporary one that sunsets as benefits kick in? Would love to hear opinions and thoughts!
- Rags Rekhi
Nazar Systems Inc.