The Internet of Food Things

Lead Research Organisation: University of Lincoln
Department Name: School of Computer Science


The "Internet of Food Things" will create an interdisciplinary network that defragments and expands the UK's food digital economy. Food and drink is the largest manufacturing sector of the UK economy. The food supply chain from farm to consumer generates £108bn GVA per year and employs 3.9m people. In addition, food has highly significant social and environmental impacts. Obesity alone, including downstream health impacts such as diabetes, heart disease etc, costs the UK economy £49bn per annum. There are still c. 1,000,000 cases of food poisoning per year costing £1.5bn p.a.. Food generates up to 30% of the UK's road freight, but 10MT of food, generating 20MTCO2e of GHG emissions, are wasted each year.

Digital technology has the potential to transform the food chain, for example, opportunities (that map onto the EPSRC DE Network strategy) include but are not limited to;
- New business models via distributed ledger technology (DLT) to underpin the traceability of food. The recent Holmes report identified food as one of the key seven UK industry sectors most likely to benefit from DLTs.
- The creation of a "data trust" for the food sector to underpin data sharing, trust and interoperability within complex supply chains.
- Wide scale application of the internet of things (IoT) for the service community, for example, the use of IoT by domestic users (refrigerators, cooking devices etc) to improve health outcomes and reduce waste.
- The development of new digital labelling protocols that assist with consumer use of food as well as supply chain optimisation,
- The use of novel digital technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence) to reduce food waste by optimising whole supply chains from manufacturer to consumer.

Hitherto these opportunities have not or are only partially realised. There is an urgent need to defragment the digitally inspired academic community and connect it to food industry practitioners.

Although the digital focus is in within EPSRC's remitIoT, blockchain, data trusts, interoperability issues), we will multiply impact by including interdisciplinary contributions from food science and technology practitioners, policy makers, engineers, management specialists and colleagues in social and behavioural sciences. The network will include academia, industry and consumer interests. The industry interest covers the whole food and digital innovation chain including food manufacturers (e.g. Food and Drink Federation, EPSRC Food CIM), IoT and digital specialists (Siemens and IMS Evolve), the HVM Catapult and regulators such as the Food Standards Agency and GS1 the international agency that sets data standards (bar codes) for retail. Consumers will be represented through out, but the inclusion of food retailers within the consortium provides access to unrivalled data sets demonstrating behaviours.

The DE network will facilitate a number of key actions, including a marketing, social media and work shop / conference campaign that yields a large scale (up to 500 persons) network who have mutual interests within the food digital domain. We will host one main conference per year and in addition 3 facilitated workshops p.a. to deep dive key questions within the food domain. We will fund a range of pilot studies (£350K applied) and detailed reviews to underpin horizon scanning. All the research challenges will be co created with industry. We expect that the network will facilitate onward research funding and catalyse interest in the food digital economy. In addition to network activities, we will deliver a comprehensive pathway to impact that engages professional practitioners as well as the general public and schools.

Planned Impact

The food chain generates a GVA of £108bn, with 3.9m employees in a truly international industry that realises £20bn of exports p.a. It is the largest manufacturing sector within the UK, greater than aerospace and automotive combined.
However, it's total R&D spend is low, the Institute of Physics (Oct 2016) estimates that it accounts for 2% of UK R&D funding compared to 21% for automotive and aerospace combined.

Furthermore, the environmental and societal impacts of the food chain are significant; for example,
a) obesity (dealing with e.g. diabetes and heart disease) costs the UK £47 billion per annum;
b) the food chain uses 17% of UK energy consumption; post farm-gate the food chain is responsible for 10MT of food waste and more than 20 MTCO2e of GHG emissions;
c) there are still 1,000,000 cases of food poisoning per year;
d) regular food "scares" undermine consumer confidence and cause alarm, i.e. "Dutch Egg Scandal, 2017"; "Hepatitis E sales of pork, 2017"; "Horsemeat, 2013".
e) post Brexit the pressures on the food chain will increase, it is muted that the UK will see imports of foods from countries with different regulatory environments (chlorinated chicken, hormone impregnated beef), as well as competition from low cost importers and potentially reduced availability of migrant labour.

Digital technology has the potential to transform the food chain. In this project we will develop a sustainable and cross disciplinary DE Network that focus's on developing and enabling the potential of digital technology within and through the food supply chain. We will examine a range of digital technologies (IoT, blockchain, architectures, analytics, twins etc) but focus on how they can deliver economic, environmental and societal impacts. This will be facilitated by the defragmentation of digital resources (especially human) with an interest in the food chain, network development, pilot studies, horizon scanning and novel digital training approaches to underpin indrial adoption.
The specific impacts will be;
1) Economic. Digital technology has the potential to drive productivity within the food manufacturing sector. The food sector was considered as a vertical strand within the BEIS Made Smarter Review (Nov, 2017) led by Juergen Maier (Siemens CEO) and outlined in the Industrial Strategy White Paper (Nov, 2017). Within this review, Accenture determined that digitisation of food manufacturing would yield £55bn of economic benefit from 2018 to 2030. This project alone will not deliver these benefits but it is a critical stepping stone in the process.
2) Environmental. The food chain has huge environmental impacts, for example 30% of all UK road freight is deployed to distribute food. UK food waste is unacceptable (10MT) and comes at great environmental cost (GHG and water). Digital approaches could transform the environmental impact of the food chain and Accenture estimate that food waste could be reduced by 20%. This will be via digital technology that connects the whole supply chain, improved data analytics to match supply and demand as well as human centric techniques that challenge behaviours (digital diet plans, recommendations on storage and recipes etc).
3) Social. Food has significant social impacts, it underpins human health (obesity, diabetes, food poisoning) and well being. We will explore novel approaches to develop a food digital economy that facilitates an improved interaction between people and food. This may include a wide range of techniques including digital approaches to raise awareness of food health issues, digital diet plans, novel concepts to underpin food safety, traceability and authenticity.


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