Amazon's recent acquisition of Whole Foods is a chance for CEO Jeff Bezos to seize the moment and launch a food revolution, according to American chef and restaurateur Alice Waters.

Immediately after the announcement, Waters tweeted to Bezos: “…You have an unprecedented opportunity to change our food system overnight: It’s time to demand that produce comes from farmers who are taking care of the land…”

The basic elements of technology that can make Waters’ locavore dreams already exist. But none of the big grocers today have yet seized the reins.

Since 2015, however, on a much smaller scale, Analog Devices has been on a journey to learn, improve and instrument Internet of Things (IoT) related to the food industries. In search of fresh, local, and sustainable tomatoes that actually taste good in the Boston area, ADI initiated a pilot project called the “Internet of Tomatoes,” involving local farmers, data scientists and universities. ADI also recruited technology partners such as Consumer Physics, developer of a molecular sensing device, and ripe.io, a start-up that designs custom blockchains for various industries, including agriculture.

The idea behind the Internet of Tomatoes is to build a sensors-to-cloud platform that turns captured data into useful intelligence for farmers, while a blockchain offers a transparent, distributed ledger that can be shared by all participants in the ecosystem. By monitoring and tracking tomatoes from seed to table based on a common platform using common tools, local farmers, packers, distributors, trucking companies, grocers, supermarkets, restaurateurs and consumers can now put on the table tomatoes that taste like tomatoes—whose quality, pedigree and provenance is verified and validated by trusted data.

Mike Murray, general manager of ADI’s industrial sensing business, told EE Times, “We are putting the technology in the hands of family farmers so that they can create better outcomes.”

“Few consumers trust their food these days,” said Raja Ramachandran, CEO at ripe.io. Few people know where produce actually comes from, how it was grown, and how good it might taste. In his opinion, technology could put “trust” back into the food supply chain and “redefine the relationship that consumers have with food.”

For example, people often talk about fresh, local, and sustainable foods. Philip Harris, president of ripe.io, asked, “But what does it mean? How local is local? Did it come from a farm 200 miles [1.6km] away or from a store you just bought it at?”

Harris said, “The food supply chain is a very fragmented ecosystem.” By capturing data and sharing it among various players, “data allows buyers’ and consumers’ questions to be answered and helps verify the data.”

Amazon’s Whole Foods acquisition will surely trigger retail evolution on the local level, said Ramachandran. Leveraging Amazon’s technology, Whole Foods could improve shoppers’ choice and convenience. Meanwhile, retailers might be able to learn consumer tastes and preferences on a much more personal level, he explained.

For ADI, the Internet of Tomatoes represents the company’s commitment to move its silicon business up the food chain, rolling out subsystems and offerings all the way up to the cloud, potentially opening ways to monetise software algorithms that can help farmers grow better produce.

Why tomatoes?

So why did ADI pick tomatoes? Erick Olsen, ADI’s strategic marketing manager, who is not a farmer but a technologist, told us, “We started out with this question: Why do tomatoes grown around Boston taste like chalk?”

Tomatoes are globally consumed produce. Olsen said, “Everyone has a strong opinion about tomatoes. Tomatoes are something [that] even amateurs, like you and I, can differentiate good ones from bad.” And yet the quality of a tomato is a mystery ‘til it’s sliced or diced and tasted, he added. Beyond knowing how much to water and fertilise tomato plants, farmers also need to predict the optimum harvest time so they can hire pickers and finally deliver the tomato to the consumer at the right time.

Tomatoes present greater challenges also for the supply chain because they are fragile. They demand extra care for packers and distributors. Truckers need to know what temperature tomatoes should be kept at and for how many hours before delivery in the best conditions without damage. Restaurateurs and grocers must know not just the tomatoes’ provenance but the conditions of their transit.

“Our goal is to deliver the best-tasting tomatoes from seed to table, all the while reducing food waste,” said Olsen.

All of these factors lend themselves to a conclusion that tomatoes are the ideal produce that can profit from the power of IoT and blockchain.

Road to Internet of Tomatoes

In speaking of IoT, many technology companies agree that “Industrial IoT” is where the real money is. While eager to pitch in PowerPoint their IoT-related products—sensors, microcontrollers, connectivity and other components—few tech companies are ready to dirty their hands applying IoT technologies to real-world problems. To bring IoT to the industrial market, “you need a vision and a lot of patience because it takes time to learn real-world problems” in the actual field, said ADI’s Murray.

ADI takes pride in the company’s industrial IoT efforts. “How many chip companies actually own and run their own agricultural farm?” asked Murray. “We do.”

ADI started out its IoT initiative by instrumenting a fab with its own sensors, according to Murray. “That’s when we realised that our sensors used in our own fab weren’t that good. To solve a particular problem, it turned out that we needed bigger-bandwidth sensors.”

In tackling tomato problems, ADI took the same hands-on approach. The company sought out willing farm partners. Then ADI instrumented sensors in the field to measure heat, light and moisture levels in search of clues to improve tomato flavour boost yields. Capturing data, working with data scientists and agriculture experts, ADI spent two years building a tomato database. It measured data toward a goal of developing a chemistry profile that might help farmers identify the elements that make tomatoes delicious.

By the second year, ADI’s taste profile was able to match four of the five top-flavour-quality tomatoes in different categories—ranging from cherry tomatoes to heirloom tomatoes—chosen by chefs as winners of the Boston Tomato Contest, said Olsen.

 
Next: Can IoT bring back juicy tomatoes? »