Digital tech can fix the global supply chain – but what can spur broader adoption?

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Chinnachart Martmoh
Image: Getty/Chinnachart Martmoh

Related tags digital agriculture

A new report highlights the transformative potential of digital technologies to create a more sustainable, transparent, and resilient global agricultural trade system. But more guidelines, upskilling initiatives and standardisation of data are needed to overcome the barriers to more widespread adoption.

Called ‘Crops to Code: The Role of Data in Fostering Sustainable Agricultural Trade and Responsible Supply Chains’​, the report brings to light the vital role of data and technology in promoting sustainable trade practices and responsible supply chains globally.

In the face of biodiversity loss, population growth, and climate change, transitioning to sustainable trade practices is an urgent necessity, the report argues.

Written jointly by TechUK, a trade association that represents and supports the UK tech sector, and conservation group WWF, the report looks at the supply journey from production to distribution to end consumer and how technology innovations, including cloud and AI, can revolutionise agricultural practices and supply chains.

The tech that’s revolutionising agricultural practices and supply chains:

  • Connected Devices and Geospatial Technology: The use of drones, smart sensors, and GPS enables precise real-time monitoring of land use, crop health, and environmental conditions, optimising water, fertiliser, and pesticide use while reducing deforestation.
  • Mobile Applications for Smallholder Producers: Apps like India’s Cotton Doc and Brazil’s To No Mapa which allow producers to record and share data on production methods, environmental impact, and transportation, enhancing supply chain transparency and traceability.
  • Earth Observation (EO) Technology: Tools like Agtelligence provide actionable insights into environmental indicators, aiding in sustainable land management and agricultural resilience.
  • Technological innovations extend to processing and packaging stages. Industrial robotics and automation enhance precision and quality control, reducing food waste and improving worker safety. Additionally, the adoption of biodegradable and reusable packaging materials and the integration of QR codes enhance visibility and traceability within the supply chain.

The report emphasises the importance of data monitoring at the production level to ensure supply chain visibility and sustainability. By leveraging mobile technology and digital platforms, for example, producers can reliably verify the origin and production methods of goods, promoting eco-friendly practices and accountability across the supply chain.

Case studies include the Tô No Mapa mobile app in Brazil. This allows farmers to map their production territories, enhancing supply chain transparency through real-time data submission to the cloud and promoting sustainability verification. Data insights provider Dun & Bradstreet, meanwhile, uses shipping data points to provide traceability and transparency, allowing the mapping of agri-food supply chains. This helps supply chain actors categorise risk and identify areas of concern before and after goods enter the UK.

The report aims to spotlight technological advancements “that can accelerate our shift towards sustainable and efficient trade practices”, said Weronika Dorociak, TechUK’s programme manager for sustainability. “International trade is crucial to the global economy, fostering job creation, economic growth, and the exchange of diverse goods and services. As we continue to face challenges such as the climate and biodiversity crisis, it is important that we reduce the environmental impact and administrative burden associated with trade and regulatory compliance.”

But we know the white space opportunities – how are the challenges overcome?

Much of this technology is at an early adopter stage, however. Mass take-up is yet to happen. Technology providers face several key questions and challenges such user adoption, scalability, cost-effectiveness and regulatory compliance.

Data integration and interoperability are other big challenges. How can providers ensure, for example, that data and analytics integrate seamlessly with existing farm management systems and agricultural technologies? How can satellite data be effectively combined with other data sources like weather information, soil data, and historical crop patterns to enhance analysis and decision-making?

Bad news for the EO sector

The challenges facing the hugely promising EO sector, for example, have just been illustrated with the unfortunate news that Planet Labs is to cut its global headcount by around 180 staff, or around 17% of its total number of employees. The company said it needs to allign its resources to the market opportunity.

To facilitate a seamless flow of trade and trade data, the UK should actively pursue data interoperability within global supply chains, the report suggested. The adoption of data interoperability would streamline compliance processes across various trading regimes reducing the administrative burden on businesses and producers. This approach is “vital for promoting sustainable global trade flows”, the report said. The UK could take a leading role in multilateral initiatives at both plurilateral and multilateral levels to develop standardised data practices, it noted.

New trade policies and technologies would also require a degree of upskilling. Many businesses, especially smaller ones, may lack the necessary resources or skills to adapt to trade innovations effectively, the report warns. Governments should therefore invest in training programs to ensure that businesses, from small enterprises to larger corporations, have access to the training required to leverage these tools and should provide clear guidance on the requirements of traders and customs processes.

Tech investment will boost sustainable international trade

In addition to scaling up technological innovations globally, the report called on governments to recognise the pivotal role of domestic investment in technology to boost sustainable international trade. By fostering a robust technological infrastructure within their borders, governments can not only enhance the “efficiency and resilience of their own trade processes” but also contribute significantly to the global sustainability agenda.

Investing in technology domestically, especially at various stages of trade such as processing, packaging, and delivery, not only positions a country as a leader in technological advancement but also serves as a catalyst for the adoption of sustainable practices on a broader scale. A technologically empowered domestic environment creates a “ripple effect, influencing the entire supply chain and encouraging other nations to embrace similar advancements”, the report said.

The integration of trade technology into supply chains holds great promise for advancing sustainability, enhancing trade efficiency, and aligning with environmental goals, according to the report. Through the use of digital platforms, smart agricultural methods, and well-designed border systems, nations can develop effective trade ecosystems that encourage responsible practices while minimising administrative complexities.

Furthermore, the use of technology in trade, particularly when facilitated through solutions such as QR codes or barcodes, “enhances consumer awareness and helps people make informed, sustainable purchasing decisions”.

TechUK and WWF provided strategic recommendations to the UK government to scale up technological innovations, foster international cooperation, and ensure accessible benefits for businesses of all sizes.

These include:

  • Establishing core environmental standards for imported agri-food
  • Pursuing data interoperability within global supply chains
  • Investing in training programs to help businesses adapt to trade innovations
  • Enhancing domestic investment in technology to boost sustainable trade.

Although challenges remain, the report concludes, “the establishment of comprehensive guidelines, upskilling initiatives, standardisation of data, and strategic investment in technology can pave the path toward a more sustainable and technologically driven trade environment.”

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