The Digital Future of Food

Remember the days when newspapers and TV decided what was news and consumers responded accordingly? Just as the news value chain splintered into a world where people create and share media, the food industry also confronts a changing landscape.

And just like in the media, this disruption is digital too.

Digital technologies are connecting food producers with consumers in new ways. The world is changing from one driven by businesses to one shaped by the consumer – with data analytics powering the transformation.

Food production is becoming localised around cities, driven by demand for local food. Digital technologies can enable localised markets to thrive by sending real-time signals from consumers to growers and back along the value chain.

Despite more people living in apartments, interest in growing our own food and buying food produced locally from supermarkets and restaurants is increasing. This bodes well for food security during natural disasters.

Getting close to consumer preferences is as vital for businesses in rapidly evolving Asian markets as it is in the streets of Melbourne.

As an example of this Skewered Brazilian BBQ is a mobile barbecue company launched in Melbourne in 2015. The company uses Square to leverage digital technology and data to optimise where and what they sell.

Data from Square is powering their business to sell what consumers want, where they want it, at competitive prices. They can control their inventory to cut down waste, which also reduces costs.

“Data analysis through Square has been invaluable for preventing food wastage from our beginnings,” says Emily Gorman, co-creator of Skewered Brazilian BBQ. 

“It is socially and economically beneficial for us as a small company and as individuals to be constantly considering whether or not our food production is accurate and the data we use allows us to solidify this.”

GROWING DEMAND

As incomes rise, consumers spend more on food, valuing protein, diversity, and convenience. The rise of Asia is transforming the world. Asia will account for 60 per cent of global food demand by 2050 as consumer incomes grow. But consumer attitudes to price, quality and branding vary significantly across Asia from country to country and there is growing demand for healthy, nutritious, safe, functional and convenient food. 

According to Food Innovation Australia (FIAL)'s Export Market Insights, well-heeled consumers across Asia are a growing market for Australia's safe, clean and tightly regulated Australian food products. How can Australia ensure its comparative advantage in agribusiness and food production is sustained as Asia's growing middle class demands more of clean and green produce?

To address these challenges, some of Australia's leading big data and agtech experts are coming together with companies across the food value chain with a big vision. By using the same agile principles which have transformed software development, it is possible to encourage sharing data right across the food value chain to boost productivity and sustainability while ensuring provenance - the key to a lasting clean and green food future. 

The Food Agility CRC (led by UTSQUT and Curtin University along with multiple food and tech industry partners) has a vision: to empower Australia's food industry to grow its comparative advantage through digital technologies.

Food Agility CEO Mike Briers brings strong entrepreneurial credentials to our endeavour. Briers has served as CEO of SIRCA, a big-data provider with technology expertise second-to-none in terms of the processing of large-scale and complex financial markets data. 

Food Agility's vision is becoming a reality on the ground through AgTech specialist firm and CRC partner The Yield

Barilla Bay Oysters

Barilla Bay Oysters

Barilla Bay Oysters is a major producer of oysters with over 100 hectares in oyster leases. They are fully integrated with a processing plant for frozen half-shells, a restaurant, a shop and a tourist centre.

Oysters are live products which command a premium price. Live oysters from Australia return 10 times a tonne more than cooked oysters from China. There is a big market potential in Asia with growers reporting up to 600 per cent margins for exported oysters.

Oyster sales rely on Australia's reputation for excellent food safety standards. They are filter animals. When it rains, oysters accumulate toxins from land run-off. Based on data from the nearest weather station, the regulator then closes oyster farms temporarily to protect human health.

Each closure can cost growers like Barilla Bay Oysters between $A20,000 to $A100,000 a day. Nationally this costs around $34 million annually. Analysis indicates closures can be reduced by at least 30 per cent using real-time salinity sensors.

“We are currently in a commercial trial with CRC partner The Yield,” Barilla Bay Oysters Manager Justin Goc said.

“Using their technology, we can reduce the number of harvesting closure days giving an instant return on investment.”

MARKET LED

Australia's food industry must be market led to create more value and must be supply ready to capture the export opportunities on our doorstep. This means understanding demand through better and more dynamic market intelligence, as well as growing demand by leveraging our brand for safe and sustainable food.

But being demand driven is not enough – we also need to then ensure we can meet demand. The biggest barriers to supply are access to finance and labour shortages. 

Just as a new suite of financial products will be tailored to offer better terms to growers with operations de-risked through sensor-based intelligent networks, so will experiential learning, robotics and autonomous systems enable a new generation of skilled agricultural workers in years to come.

These opportunities arise in response to systemic challenges and will not be solved by any one business. But they can be solved with collaboration between food and technology companies, both small and large, working in tandem with Australia's research community.

Mara Bun is a company director, consultant and moderator. She is bid consultant to Food Agility CRC, an entrepreneurial, industry-led research team building a platform to support the Australian food industry's response to the digital era.