New 'digital twin' technology could prevent future food crises in Israel

The origin of digital twins is in civil engineering, where it simulates structures and infrastructure systems to improve their durability, efficiency, operations and maintenance.

 Israeli farmer Tzachi Ariel works at his strawberry farm near Moshav Kadima-Zoran, near the city of Netanya, on February 20, 2022. (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)
Israeli farmer Tzachi Ariel works at his strawberry farm near Moshav Kadima-Zoran, near the city of Netanya, on February 20, 2022.
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER/FLASH90)

Creating virtual representations of farming systems and combining them with advanced decision-making technologies such as artificial intelligence can yield many benefits for agriculture and agri-food supply chains at a time when food systems are not on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. 

In response to food systems falling short of their targets, transforming these systems through digital technological innovation, such as using computer-enabled technologies, including smart sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) and other embedded systems, has been proposed. 

Now, computer-simulated models of physical objects – known as “digital twins” –  developed and reported in two studies at Reichman University in Herzliya can transform food systems and supply chains, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, food waste and malnutrition.

Dr. Asaf Tzachor of the university’s School of Sustainability and colleagues from the Universities of Cambridge and Melbourne have just published their findings in the prestigious Nature Portfolio Journal Science of Food and Nature Sustainability.

“Had these models been implemented in Israel,” suggested Tzachor, “we could have avoided the Sunfrost crisis and products recall when animal parts were found in frozen food packages, and the Strauss recall of chocolates throughout the country after salmonella bacteria were found in the factory's production line.” These failures cost the companies tens and even hundreds of millions of shekels in losses. 

  Dr. Asaf Tzachor  (credit: Reichman University) Dr. Asaf Tzachor (credit: Reichman University)

The origin of digital twins is in civil engineering, where it simulates structures and infrastructure systems to improve their durability, efficiency, operations and maintenance. In recent years, these advanced computer models have been re-purposed to address issues in other domains including in natural environments, simulating ecosystems and the climate system. 

"The motivation underpinning our research is to see a transformation in food systems and food supply chains by designing advanced models and decision-support systems to be deployed along all steps in the food value chain – from agricultural production in farms, through food processing in the industry, to food distribution and retailing,” says Tzachor.

“These virtual, precise, real-time models can help us to determine optimal strategies for maximizing crop yields, design new crop varieties, conduct ‘what-if’ simulations for testing and identifying pathways to improving agrifood sector sustainability, reduce food waste and loss, and deliver food to undernourished communities."

Using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that detect biological, chemical, and physical properties of objects in real-time, digital twins provide “live” monitoring of food production, transportation, processing, packaging, and delivery. For example, a digital twin of a food processing plant can predict failures in maintaining quality standards. A digital twin of a supermarket may help reduce food waste by optimizing the inventory of food items, including fresh produce.

Food supply chains are responsible for the production and transportation of food, from agricultural farms around the world to neighborhood grocery stores. They are a hallmark of globalization, yet they are also inefficient and wasteful. In addition, food systems and supply chains are responsible for about a third of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, as well as for food waste and loss of billions of dollars a year.

As digital twin technology is evolving, the researchers call for governments, innovation authorities, and private sector firms to invest more heavily in these models and deploy them to reduce food crises, malnutrition, and greenhouse gas emissions.