Applied to food supply chains, ambient IoT allows farmers, distributors, grocers, regulators and consumers to know where food came from, how far it traveled, how it was transported and stored, and what condition it’s in — in real time.
The world can’t count on carbon offsets to deliver us from the climate crisis. As helpful as it may be for corporations to offset some of their emissions, the greatest force for good is the everyday citizen. Specifically, it’s the well-informed, carbon-savvy grocery shoppers who buy sustainably grown produce — not just because they know the carbon footprint of bananas, zucchini, or beef; but because it’s also clear which farmers are regenerating the land to support a healthy planet.
How on earth can shoppers know? By tracking everything, everywhere, all the time.
My time in the financial markets drew me to climate tech startups and the importance of impact investing. Indicators from our planet were signaling code red. At the same time, the increased frequency of supply chain disruptions from biodiversity decline and climate change was hitting corporate profitability.
Investment funds focused on environmental, social and governance (ESG) commitments were ballooning; but I struggled to quantify or have visibility into exactly which corporations, or their products, were actually “doing good.” Quantification of the E in ESG was a real problem; and it was a multitrillion-dollar opportunity that made sense on all levels.
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Since then, I’ve been involved with various innovative companies committed to tackling the issue head on — from carbon removal in supply chains to restoring biodiversity in soils. The latter led me to agriculture technology (AgTech) and the cutting-edge field of the Ambient Internet of Things (IoT) — a system of ubiquitous Bluetooth tags and cloud-based software that makes anything traceable and intelligent.
One of my first ventures into AgTech was to leverage IoT to measure leaf temperatures, soil conditions and root health — all key to driving sustainable farming decisions. It gave food producers the tools to see or digitize their risks in real-time, make improvements, and share the results with the supply chain. But the cost to acquire the data was high, which hindered scalability.
Ambient IoT changes the whole calculus because it’s based on ultra-low-cost, battery-free, stamp-sized computer sensors that can go anywhere and communicate wirelessly with existing systems or off-the-shelf, standardized network devices. Applied to food supply chains, ambient IoT allows farmers, distributors, grocers and even regulators to know where food came from, how far it traveled, how it was transported and stored, and what condition it’s in — and not only back when the food was harvested, packed or put on a truck; but in real time.
Taken together, ambient IoT data — location, time-in-transit, temperature, humidity and more — provides crucial primary data to calculate the carbon footprint not just of the food companies involved but of every individual product on a supermarket’s shelves. It’s a chief sustainability officer's dream. Armed with this information, we as citizens can be given a choice to select food products that make the planet healthier — to do our part by eating sustainably.
Carbon visibility and trust
In a recent study by the Boston Consulting Group, 77 percent of consumers said they were concerned about the sustainability of the food they buy; 63 percent said they were trying to shop more sustainably. Their challenge? Acting on their concern.
There are a couple of reasons it’s hard for consumers to shop for sustainable food (or for that matter, sustainable clothes, cosmetics or household supplies). First is that they don’t always know which groceries are, in fact, sustainable. Second is that they’re not sure who they can trust.
In stores, consumers are bombarded by signs and food labels touting “local,” “organic” or “sustainable.” But when it comes to climate impact, such messaging can be confusing, if not misleading. Locally grown vegetables may have been stored in carbon-hungry refrigeration or cultivated in greenhouses that emit more carbon than a slow boat from another continent. And those organic fruits may have been grown with regenerative practices on a different continent and flown (then, driven miles) to the store. Yet each product does, indeed, have an individual carbon footprint that can be traced.
But in the absence of product-level carbon data, consumers look to brands for guidance, seeking those committed to “net zero” or other pledges to protect the climate. These are laudable efforts but susceptible to what the public and regulators have come to identify as greenwashing — an act of climate fraud best combatted with credible, real-time data.
Not to mention, even responsible companies can only report on their sustainability commitments annually or quarterly — whenever a report is finished. Even monthly reporting falls short of what should be the standard for carbon tracing in the food chain: real-time, product-level carbon visibility. And only the ambient IoT can achieve that.
Real-time carbon data
Consumers have become skeptical, with some justification. Recently, a Dutch environmental foundation — in association with other food groups — reported on the pervasiveness of greenwashing in the food supply chain, which experts say contributes one-third of global emissions.
In response, regulators have taken it upon themselves to require producers of all kinds to prove sustainability claims through data. The best way to do it reliably and consistently is through meaningful, real-time metrics delivered through a credible medium.
Consumers live in a real-time world of social media feeds, fitness trackers and generative AI. Carbon visibility should be the next killer app — not only as it relates to what people eat but what they wear, where they vacation, and more.
Whether on people’s smartphones or via smart, digital shelf signage, supermarkets can use ambient IoT data to deliver carbon visibility the same way they engage shoppers in points clubs, digital coupons, and other social media-style promotions. Yes, gamification can help save the planet when it leads to more sustainable food consumption.
Unlocking the benefits of ambient IoT
Real-time carbon visibility is just part of the ambient IoT equation. Companies that deploy an ambient IoT infrastructure can solve other challenges, some that further support their climate goals and others that align the planet with profitability.
In addition to tracking the carbon footprint of products in their supply chain, companies can use ambient IoT data to capture missed revenues and reduce food waste. Ambient IoT can collect environmental data on elements such as temperature and humidity, even in stores and trucks, which determine freshness and shelf life. And it produces data to comply with new supply chain regulations and ensure food safety. Until now, most compliance checks have been manual, expensive and ad hoc. Ambient IoT automates compliance and cuts costs because now every product effectively shouts its status (i.e., sends data packets) on the way to supermarket shelves.
But ambient IoT is capable of even more. In the long run, to combat climate change, we must use it to restore biodiversity and put carbon back into the ground. The food system can achieve these goals through regenerative agriculture, which improves the health of soil and creates healthy plants and nutrient-rich food. There is already an ecosystem of innovative solutions to help measure the process of regenerative agriculture and accelerate its adoption. Ambient IoT has a role in that measurement.
Ultimately, ambient IoT will help mobilize data about the land and nature’s status. It can determine whether that next meal is traceable to a healthy, sustainable, regenerative source. Already, major initiatives like the EU’s regulation on deforestation-free products and the US government’s Food Safety Modernization Act will require companies to prove they know where food comes from. This is a game-changer because it requires visibility into the flow of goods and materials and the ability to identify who is contributing to regenerating the land.
I’m confident that when citizens are turned onto this level of visibility, we’ll see them over-consume delicious, healthy meals. That’s how we eat our way out of climate change.