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Utilizing technology to maximize yields in organic food supply chain


Organic production is classified as a farm management and food production system which follows the best environmental practices, has high levels of biodiversity, preserves natural resources and applies high standards of animal welfare. The use of synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are prohibited during production.

However, there are still concerns that organic farming may return much lower yields than those associated with conventional farming methods.

So why is maximizing yields such an important issue to resolve, and how can it be done?

Increasing demand for the supply chain

Global sales of organic produce increased by almost 430 percent in the period from 2000 to 2018 albeit from a relatively small base. At the turn of the millennium, sales of organic food were at $18bn and the latest figures from 2018 show sales had risen to $95bn.

Organic food sales equated to 5.7 percent of the overall food sales in the US, growing to $52.5bn in 2018. This figure is set to grow even more over the next few years, with organic food production in the US set to reach $70.4bn by 2025. China is also witnessing a growth in its organic food supply chain, reaching more than $65bn in 2018 – a growth of almost 50 percent since 2011.

In the EU, sales of organic foods have increased by 47.7 percent to €30.7bn, with Germany and France playing a major part in this increased demand from the organic food supply chain with retail sales of €9.5bn and €6.7bn respectively.

The challenges of going organic

Despite the sustainability benefits of organic production, some experts argue that this farming model can harm the end product.

Quantity and quality will always be a hugely challenging area for the organic food supply chain. There have been great advancements in non-chemical pesticides as organic food production has boomed, which is a major positive from an environmental perspective. However, it is still yet to be proven whether organic pesticides are having a negative impact on the environment or not.

Having yields that are fully optimized is best for business, but it is problematic within the organic food supply chain. In a report by the European Commission, it was found that organic yields are typically lower than conventional yields and the impact of organic farming varied depending on the systems and processes used.

In the best-case instances where “rain-fed legumes and perennials on weak-acidic to weak-alkaline soils” were used, organic yields were 5 percent lower than conventional yields, however the difference can rise to as high as 34 percent – this higher figure is believed to be when conventional and organic yields are the most comparable.

As reported by National Geographic, one farm in the US also has problems with making the most of its yields, throwing away two-thirds of its daily produce due to issues with aesthetics and imperfections caused by the methods of organic farming.

The current Covid-19 situation is also proving a challenge for the organic food supply chain. This increased retail demand is placing a strain on the supply chain. With produce being supplied and delivered by an international supply network and global restrictions currently being in place, gaining access to some organic produce has become very challenging for the food industry.


Improving organic yields with innovation

With yield levels being lower than those associated with conventional growing and farming methods, the organic food supply must look to innovation to maximize its potential. For the organic produce which may not carry the same aesthetic appeal as the consumer has become used to as a result of imperfections or defects from the farming process, wastage should be the absolute last resort.

Technology must be used to help resolve this issue. Through implementing efficient sorting and grading technology within the organic food supply chain, the overall quality of a harvest can be thoroughly assessed.

Food sorting technology can detect imperfections or unwanted material in product stream. By detecting the imperfections, this can help to identify whether produce suitable to be packaged up for consumers or used as ingredients for other products, such as soups or ready-prepared meals.

This is how the organic food supply chain can make the most out of its produce and ensure yields are optimized to their full potential. The quality of the defective produce can be assessed at the very start of the process, meaning that if it doesn’t meet the required grade for individual consumption, an alternative use can be found, and organic waste can be reduced.


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Roel Molenaers

Written by Roel Molenaers

Head of Product Management - TOMRA Food