Technology And Food Safety

Every day there is a news item that reinforces the importance of food security in our lives. Just a few days prior to writing this article there was the announcement that salmonella bacteria had once again been found in the nation’s food supply. The source of the contamination was not known, but the outbreak had affected at least 42 states and had already sickened more than 350 people. In fact, some of the cases were only a few counties from my home.

Whether due to the complexity of the food supply chain, better reporting of incidents, or better forensics on the part of the emergency medical system, food security issues on a national scale appear to be more common in recent years.

It seems a bit ironic that we now have precision agriculture tools that can pinpoint to the meter a chemical application in the field, but it typically takes weeks to identify a source of contamination. The question should be asked: “How could precision agriculture support food security?” Before answering this, it might be helpful to define food security, particularly from the perspective of produce moving through the food supply chain.

Safe And Sustainable, Field To Fork

Drawing from the literature, I would define food security as the “sustained production and distribution of safe and nutritious food in quantities and quality in order for people to have healthy lives.” This food security definition can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

I will try to interpret it from the perspective of precision agriculture. I will first address the “sustainable production and distribution” phrase in the definition. Variability in production and inequities in distribution threaten reliable, sustainable food supplies. While distribution is tied to infrastructure, economy, trade agreements, and national policy, variable production is the result of soil resources, weather patterns, and management practices.

Historically, precision agriculture has been almost exclusively focused on the production space. The combination of geospatial monitoring, improved equipment capabilities, and the integration and presentation of data provided by information technology tools has resulted in better decision making in the field. With the greater adoption of today’s precision agriculture products, food security will only benefit from a more consistent performance at the point of production.

“Safe and nutritious food,” the second phrase in the food security definition, is just now beginning to be impacted by precision agriculture. Safe food can only be guaranteed when there is accountability. That is, transparent records as to the management practices, including applied materials, employed in field production must be available to all stakeholders in the food supply chain.

The passing of these records from field to consumer provides a traceability of the management outcomes. As-applied maps of material applications, bar-coded or radio frequency identification (RFID)-tagged produce, and online entries into record-keeping programs are good examples of precision agriculture products that support food chain traceability, with safe food as the end result. With accountability from the point of production, any downstream problems can be quickly be traced back to an upstream source. Nutritious food can also be served by traceability products. In analogous logic for preventing problems, the same precision agriculture tools and programs can confirm the claims of food ingredients. Supply chain testing and online record keeping can report whether a shipment of produce contains the declared amount of fiber, protein, sugar and other organic compounds, or whether it came from genetically modified organism (GMO) seed.

Quantity And Quality

The third phrase in our food security definition has to do with “quantities and quality.” While the quantity and quality of food has always been measured in the supply chain for monetary evaluation, it is rarely linked backed to production decision making. The inability to make backward links is especially true of quality.

There are several reasons for this shortcoming. First, produce from different farms is commonly mixed together as it moves through the supply chain to meet quantity demands. This mixing removes source identities. Second, produce from large-acreage operations has an inherent range of quality even if from a single farm. Third, handling and storage practices can change and in some cases degrade the quality of produce before it reaches its final destination. Fourth, new and changing markets can redirect food quantities and challenge a quality rating.

A good example of a new market is corn as a source for biofuel. This shift in corn quantities to the new biofuel market reduces their availability to traditional markets. Precision agriculture tools and programs have yet to make an impact in the downstream portion of the food supply chain. But if recent trends are an indicator, it is not hard to imagine that the evolution in today’s tools and programs will play a future role in linking production practices to the end-of-chain food quantities and quality.

This evolution of precision agriculture tools and programs is captured in “technology tune-up” theme of this issue. In the end, it will be the continual improvement and integration of precision agriculture technology into the food supply chain that will help contribute to food security in this country and throughout the world.

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