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The Year Ahead: AI goes mainstream

2024 year ahead

As the produce industry continued to find its equilibrium in 2023, issues like artificial intelligence, climate change, labor, and food safety affected everyone along the supply chain.

As the new year begins, we take a look at the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Artificial intelligence (AI) became top of mind both in business and among consumers in 2023, especially generative AI applications such as ChatGPT. The produce industry is in the midst of exploring and implementing programs integrating AI in all of its forms.

“Large data-analysis models and AI are gaining tremendous traction,” confirms Irwin Donis-González, associate professor at the University of California, Davis and director of the Postharvest Technology Center. “It’s still in its infancy, but it’s coming very fast.

“There’s a conventional belief that AI can solve everything, and this is far from the truth,” he adds. “At the end of the day, AI is only as good as its inputs; more research is needed to figure out the right applications. But it’s going to play a pivotal role.”

Kevin Brooks, chief revenue and marketing officer at supply chain service provider Procurant BB #:355257, Watsonville, CA, is on the same page. “I think everyone realizes that AI has a place in the tech stack, but there are still many questions about issues like data privacy, governance, where it can play a role that brings more benefit than risk, and so forth.

“Also, the tech vendors haven’t yet settled on what we mean when we say something uses AI,” he continues. “It could range from process automation to ChatGPT-like interfaces to sophisticated data analysis. I think everyone is about to go through a large learning curve in this area over the next three to five years.”

When it comes to data, current uses of AI are many.

“Artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithms have become more integrated into the data analytics side of our product offerings,” says Amy Childress, vice president at Copeland in Ferguson, MO, which encompasses Emerson’s Climate Technologies business and includes the soon-to-be-rebranded Emerson GO Logger and GO Trackers.

“As these AI-driven tools become more advanced and accumulate data over time, they’ll yield more predictive and incisive insights,” she notes.

“We’re using AI for analyzing data, generating marketing copy and images, and writing contracts and other correspondence,” says Jin Ju Wilder, vice president of marketing and business development for Vesta Foodservice BB #:125924 in Santa Fe Springs, CA.

Sensing technology for quality control and food safety is another trend to watch, according to Irwin Donis-González, associate professor at the University of California, Davis and director of the Postharvest Technology Center. “The industry wants readily available tools to make decisions—there’s a lot of pressure to develop solutions that are quick, inexpensive, and robust.”

“Monitoring and tracking technologies continue to evolve to provide the fresh produce industry with deeper cold chain insights and ever-increasing visibility to in-transit perishables shipments,” says Childress. “The next generation of cold chain technologies will build on this foundation to move the industry toward true traceability.”

More granular perishables monitoring, by pallet or zone, will drive more informed decision-making, allowing rejections of only portions of a load rather than an entire shipment, for example, while providing regulators and stakeholders with holistic cold chain visibility, she says.

This is an excerpt from the feature story from the January/February 2024 issue of Produce Blueprints Magazine. Click here to read the whole issue.