Andreas Lenz

“Farm to Fork” Logistics: Towards a More Sustainable Food Chain

Worldwide, a third of all food produced is lost somewhere along the food supply chain, spoiling or getting discarded before it ever has a chance of being eaten. Consumers in developed countries are demanding a more sustainable, less wasteful food chain. At the same time, they expect a wide assortment of produce year-round. Actors along the supply chain are caught between these contradictory expectations. Could logistics turn this dilemma into a win-win?

Consumers’ year-round demand for variety means food has a long journey from the farm to your fork, and food loss occurs at all stages of this global food chain. For developing countries, food gets spoiled or lost more often in the production and processing stages. Inadequate infrastructure and technology mean a higher vulnerability to pests, weather events, and suboptimal storage conditions. Farmers must also estimate an uncertain future demand or overproduce on purpose to ensure contracts are fulfilled with retailers. In developed countries, food loss and waste occur at later stages of retail and consumption: 30% of what is harvested never reaches the table as retailers facing strict regulations and cosmetic expectations from consumers dispose of perfectly edible foods that are simply too unsightly or small. Consumers also purchase more than they can consume or dispose of edible goods that have reached their best-by dates, not understanding that these are usually set quite conservatively.

Initiatives to tackle food waste have grown in popularity, with stores from Wal-Mart to Whole Foods promoting “ugly” produce to challenge current cosmetic standards. The San-Francisco based Imperfect Produce is taking unattractive fruits and vegetables straight from farmers to consumers’ doors. In New York, the GroGreen app will provide a platform for farmers with less desirable produce to hook up with restaurants who need it. However, cosmetic standards are just one small part of the problem. And while consumers cause a lot of food waste, fourteen percent of the overall loss worldwide actually occurs in logistics. This is where a new approach could make a big impact. Hence, “farm to fork” logistics. This approach is one that plans a food’s entire journey along the food chain from start to finish. According to recent studies, “farm to fork” logistics has the potential to reduce food losses in the supply chain by up to 90%.

Andreas Lenz, Managing Director DHL FoodLogistics
Andreas Lenz, Managing Director DHL FoodLogistics
Andreas Lenz,
Managing Director DHL FoodLogistics

So how can considering the food chain as a whole change so much? A lot of actors are involved in the food chain, from producers and processors to retailers. Food must be transported from one actor to the next as quickly as possible and stored properly along the entire journey. Traditionally, food chain logistics has been, well, rather unorganized. You might compare it to a relay race—with no coach or track. Sure, the baton gets passed on, but each runner only has the next runner in sight. Instead of considering the whole track, they’ve taken positions helter-skelter across the field. And while each sprinter individually does his or her best to get to the next one as fast as possible, the end result of running back and forth across the field is a far cry from the dazzling one-way dash on a streamlined track.

A coordinated “farm to fork” logistics strategy takes this haphazard effort and turns it into an efficient relay. It does so by planning the food chain as an integrated whole, allowing for amount and capacity planning, as well as the consideration of relevant parameters to ensure optimal transport time frames and the most cost-effective mix of transport modes in each individual case.

If we look at logistics as an equal partner in the food chain, we can achieve a successful management of the entire food chain that goes beyond the disarray and unnecessary waste of traditional exchanges.

That’s not to say the path will be easy. A number of challenges stand in the way.

First is the issue of convincing individual actors of the benefits of “farm to fork” logistics management. Modern, efficient IT systems can provide transparency and increase individuals’ confidence in the switch to new logistics systems. In particular the Blockchain technology, known as the backbone of Bitcoin and mostly deployed by fintechs, promises more security and transparency. Blockchain technology allows customers and vendors to connect directly1. But the even more interesting fact is, that data documented via Blockchain technology can’t be tricked. The network consists of a chain of computers that must all approve an exchange before anything can be verified and recorded. In terms of a food supply chain this could create a never seen transparency from “farm to fork” including data like for instance temperature, production date and ingredients.

Blockchain establishes a “digital ledger,” a decentralized database of transactions that everyone on the network can see.
Blockchain establishes a “digital ledger,” a decentralized database of transactions that everyone on the network can see.
Blockchain establishes a “digital ledger,” a decentralized database of transactions that everyone on the network can see.
[Till Nows/Guten Tag for Delivered. The Global Logistics Magazine]

Second, bottlenecks in key areas must be addressed. The mounting scarcity of trained personnel—in particular truck drivers—has long been an intractable issue for the industry, and creative solutions must be developed to make jobs in road transport more attractive for potential drivers. Bottlenecks arising from seasonal shortages in temperature-controlled equipment on intercontinental routes must also be addressed.

Third, functioning cold chains in railway freight traffic need to be established and actively monitored. Cold chains are crucial to reducing perishable food loss and a difference of just one or two degrees Celsius over several days can significantly impact a product’s shelf life.

Overcoming these challenges is no small feat, but the rewards are worth it. Using logistics, actors in the food chain can responsibly tackle the exorbitant food loss happening every year, increase food security, and reduce unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of being torn between the dilemma of either meeting consumer demands for food variety or reducing pollution, the global food chain can get a higher volume of food to consumers even faster while moving towards sustainability. I’d call that a win-win.
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