Made up of computer and data scientists, chemists, and economists, the Internet of Food Things (IoFT) Network Plus will investigate how artificial intelligence, data analytics and emerging technologies can digitalise the UK food supply chain.
The network, led by the University of Lincoln in partnership with the universities of Southampton, Surrey, East Anglia, and the Open University, has a heavy emphasis on the traceability of food.
It is to examine how machine learning and artificial intelligence can extract value from the vast amounts of data available across the whole food supply chain, improving efficiency and reducing food waste.
It will also look at the application of the IoT in connected homes of the future – for example, smart refrigerators that trigger a grocery order when food items run low, or cooking devices that could help people live healthier lives.
Funding for pilot studies, projects and reviews
Businesses and researchers nationally will be able to facilitate workshops, run annual conferences to share best practice across the sector, and bid for funding for pilot studies, projects and reviews.
The creators of the network hoped that, collectively, these initiatives – which will run until May 2021 – would contribute to progressing the digitisation of UK food and drink manufacturing.
Professor Simon Pearson, director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology at the University of Lincoln, said: “The food supply chain from farm to consumer generates £112bn gross value-added per year and employs 3.9 million people, but it is operating against a backdrop of an increasingly competitive environment.
“It has never been more vital that we find ways to work more efficiently, saving money for producers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers.”
Pearson also referred to other “stark figures” that he claimed made the network and its goals even more vital. These included around a million cases of food poisoning every year, costing £1.5bn; food generating up to 30% of the UK’s road freight; and 10 million tonnes of food being wasted each year, generating 20 million tonnes of CO2.
‘The whole food and digital innovation chain’
“The network is being set up to specifically engage with the whole food and digital innovation chain,” he explained. “It 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 inclusion of food retailers like Tesco within the consortium provides access to unrivalled data sets demonstrating behaviours.”
Alongside academic expertise, the project will also involve industry specialists from a range of areas, such as engineering company Siemens, IoT and machine management firm IMS Evolve, rural agricultural consultancy Collison & Associates, and research group High Value Manufacturing Catapult.
In addition, regulators such as the Food Standards Agency and GS1 – the international agency that sets data standards for bar codes – will have input.
The project is funded by a £1.14m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.