Episode #12

Louise Manning, PhD, has worked as an academic, management consultant, lecturer and business and personal coach for thirty-five years addressing business management, quality assurance, brand equity, food safety, animal welfare, corporate social responsibility, ethical issues, and environmental protection. 

She is passionate about food and transparency. 

People on the planet live largely within urban populations, and are therefore dissociated from their food. To be able to access authentic, clear information around their food, they rely on labelling. 

As technology increases Louise believes we have the opportunity to communicate about what is in the food, how it is produced, and the impact of our purchasing decisions, and be much clearer about all of that to consumers. 

But she adds if we are going to build transparency, what sits with that is trust. It’s trust in how the data is being collected, how it’s being used, but also trust in the data itself, that it’s representative. That is is giving valid, actionable insights. 


Dom Burch, Louise Manning

Dom Burch  00:09

Welcome back to the ubloquity podcast with me Dom Burch. This is the podcast where we get to speak to experts in this wonderful world of not just blockchain but supply chains, and food and value chains. And I’m absolutely delighted this week to welcome Professor of sustainable agri food systems Louise Manning. Now, Louise works at the Lincoln Institute for Agri Food Technology – LIAT- and recently joined from the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester, and has more than 35 years experience of working within the food industry. Louise it’s an absolute pleasure, welcome to the podcast.

Louise Manning  00:46

It’s really lovely to be here.

Dom Burch  00:48

I’m in awe of your background and your experience, but maybe just give our listeners a little bit of an intro. What brought you to LIAT, what was your story, your journey to where you are now?

Louise Manning  00:59

Well, the first job I ever had with a degree in chemistry and biochemistry in the late 80s, was I had to get a job on a bus route. And so I rang up about 20 companies, and one of them was a food company, I started work washing up in their laboratory over 30 years ago. So that’s what originally brought me to food. And in that particular instance, cider. So I was a cider blender. So at the very start, that’s what I was involved with. And I’ve always had a passion for food. And I have both personally, but also with the industry because it connects people. And often when we work in technical areas of food or logistics, we forget the what lies at the heart of the food industry. And food is the way that it connects people. And foods, there are so many of the really important times in our lives. So I’ve worked with food and had a career as a consultant. And then I funded my own PhD, which I did part time, and then went into academia. And I am somebody who is interested in a wide range of food and farming. And so my work sits within that system level of all the challenges we have in delivering safe, affordable food to people right across the world, as the world becomes more complicated, and it seems to be getting more complicated all the time. All the issues that sit around that become really important to think about. And so I could be talking to people about food waste one day, the integrity of people in the supply chain, the next day talking about ransomware. With being at the Lincoln Institute for agri food technology, looking at robotics or AI or how we manage data. So for anyone that’s listening, who is not involved with the food industry, it it’s a really brilliant industry to be involved with. So hopefully that gives a bit of background.

Dom Burch  02:05

Absolutely doesn’t I can tell just how passionate you are about food, it really comes through sings through in what you say. And one of the things that’s interesting, is sort of understanding the culture of food, how we produce it, how we manufacture it, how we sell it, but then looking at, you know, as technology is developing, what are the opportunities then to really share information and data and insight in different ways so that you can start to tackle some of these big gnarly issues, right, you know, inequalities around food, have always been there, but are particularly extreme at times like this, when we’re in, you know, economic distress when people are, you know, really, really struggling with the cost of living when there are, you know, parts of the world at war, like in Ukraine, which is going to have a knock on impact on the supply of food. What is it that you know, really excited you when you were self funding your PhD about marrying those two worlds the world of technology and the world of food production,

Louise Manning  04:19

What really drives me is transparency. People on the planet a largely urban populations, very much dissociated from their food. To be able to access authentic, clear information around their food. If you look at the UK as one of the first countries to urbanise across the world and where the majority of the population now live in cities, we use have used labelling as one of the key aspects of how we communicate with people. As technology increases we have the opportunity to communicate about what is in the food, how it is produced, and the impact of our purchasing decisions, we have the opportunity to be much clearer about that to consumers. So they can play a real role in making a change in the world. What we also need to demonstrate is that no matter, and this is the real social challenge, no matter what your income, if we say there is food security in a country or across a region, we’re saying, using the definition that all people at all times have access to safe, affordable, nutritious food. And I think the opportunities with technology to be able to be more efficient to be able to communicate, are really what’s exciting at the moment.

Dom Burch  05:57

What are some of the technologies that are really now at that cutting edge? What can you know, what are kind of things that you’re working on, or that you’re seeing come to life on farm, even that are going to change the way that you know, people can trust ultimately the label, right, because the label is a claim. And we want to be able to believe in that. But the data and the ecosystem that sits in front of that label needs to be plugged together, doesn’t it in such a way that people can really rely on the data. And, frankly, they can push against it and say prove it, I want to know that’s true.

Louise Manning  06:31

So I’ll come to technology in a moment. But first, we have to recognise that in many parts of the world, where food or food ingredients are being produced, the level of literacy is low, the ability to be able to keep any records at all, mostly on paper. But sometimes that is actually quite difficult with some of the literacy levels around the world. We are not capturing all the data at the moment. Yet, we can then go to highly sophisticated highly autonomous food units, where they are capturing multiple amounts of data using AI, using cameras sensors. If we look at the uptake of technology, or the role of humans at different parts of the chain, we see a very, very different picture. That means if we’re then looking at how we adopt technology, how we improve efficiency, and transparency for the consumer, we need a whole range of different technologies along the supply chain. And we also need them to be at different price points. So the work that we’re doing at LIAT is recognising all of those factors. And also looking at the real challenge that we have that as we have an increasingly urbanised population, labour in rural areas, humans undertaking certain work, picking fruit, sorting through it, working on the farms, we are finding it more and more difficult to find people who want to work in those kinds of activities. So part of the adoption of technology is about automation. How are there certain tasks or skills that are currently being done by people that can be substituted with technology. Others are around the intelligence and the information that certain stages, and how we can capture that using sensors, using anything from audio sensors to temperature to visual applications. And then looking at how we integrate those together. One of the biggest challenges we have on the planet is pollination. We rely totally on insects across the world. If we had to go out and hand pollinate as a human population, we would struggle to survive on that basis. So finding out more about the insects is really important. So we’re seeing a huge rise in bio acoustics software and applications where they can start to tell which insects are in the orchard. And they could be both pests and beneficial insects. It will then start to help you at other stages. We’re seeing drones going over orchards to look at Blossom. We’re seeing similar technology, either drones or field mounted where they’re looking at the imaging the crop as it’s growing so they can get a feel for yield or how it potentially could meet supermarket specifications. But it’s integrating all of that that’s really important. So we’re seeing the rise of digital twins of farms, where all this information whether it’s from Drones, whether it is from bio acoustic sensors, whether it’s sensors that are looking at the trees and seeing if they’re suffering from water stress, all of these, this can be brought together to help with the decision making on farm. As you can tell, I think it’s really exciting. But we have to also look at the fact that just because we can collect data doesn’t mean that all that data is useful. And we face the challenge of data swamping. So whether we’re looking at the data we’re collecting on a farm, in a pack house in logistics, but what the consumers are purchasing and when we can have enormous amounts of data, and what some people are describing as big data. But the question then is, what’s the important data? Or how do we take different pieces of data and draw it together so aggregated, it starts to tell us and give us a lot of information about the food chain?

Dom Burch  11:06

And that’s absolutely key, isn’t it? You’ve got this data lake, I’ve heard people use that phrase quite a lot. Where are the little drops, if you like, that when you put them together, provide you some actionable insight, so you’re actually turning it into something useful, or it can create an alert or an alarm or a trigger that allows you to react quicker than perhaps you would have reacted previously?

Louise Manning  11:27

Absolutely. But also, what lies with that is the ethics of using that data. Now more than ever, the food that I’m purchasing, how I am operating a farm, how I’m operating a business, all of that data can be collected, but it can also be aggregated to give a real footprint about me as an individual. And so a lot of work is going on. And LIAT is involved in that work, looking at how you develop data governance structures, what are the rules that we would set around data that is collected, especially around people and their activities? How do we share that data? What elements of data in a given business will be private? What data can be public, or can be shared? And what are the rules and permissions that sit around that sharing? I think that’s really important work. If we are going to build transparency, what sits with that is trust. And it’s trust in how the data is being collected, how it’s being used, but also trust in the data itself, that it’s representative. As you’re saying it gives actionable insight. It’s giving valid, actionable insight. So there are a number of people working in this area right now, thinking about all those kinds of things and how you build up the governance around trust and data sharing.

Dom Burch  12:59

And that’s probably a good moment to talk about blockchain and distributed ledger, because I guess one of the things is these, some of these ecosystems are beginning to emerge, and people are beginning to put the protocols around them, but also thinking really carefully about how that data is allowed to be written to a blockchain. Has it been verified? Is there some sense of multifactor verification? Are you able to authenticate it ideally, from a sensor coming directly into a system rather than some human intervention? And then once it’s there, who has permission to see the whole and who has permission to input and extract? And all of those things are important, aren’t they in terms of the governance of any of these systems, not just merely the fact that you can grab data and put it somewhere and keep it immutable?

Louise Manning  13:47

Absolutely. But it’s also a socio technical system food. So we are changing the interaction of the human in the food supply chain, not only with their job role, but also the information in the data. We utilise humans, currently right throughout the food supply chain to because it is different to other industries. Our product is natural, it changes the food system is much more dynamic than a system where you could implement blockchain. Say for example, if you were manufacturing, raw materials that never change. The challenge with food is it is a natural product that is changing all the time. It will naturally deteriorate while it’s in store. And at the moment humans and their decision making and their use of the data and information that’s available. We rely on that very strongly throughout the supply chain. When we then look at blockchain, we have to really consider the role of the person as we develop these systems because we don’t want to lose all of that agility that sits with the knowledge that is in a person’s head, it’s very important that we reflect on that. And don’t just bring systems that have come from other sectors and say they will work in food.

Dom Burch  15:16

What excites you, Louise? about the future? What is it that you can see coming over the horizon? Maybe things you’re already working on that aren’t yet coming to full fruition? What is it that excites you about the future of technology in relation to food security and sustainability?

Louise Manning  15:31

In all the years, gosh, 35, maybe more years that I’ve been involved with the food industry, it’s always been a vibrant industry, it’s always been looking forward, it’s looking at new opportunities, it has its challenges, and technology may well address some of those. But technology offers the opportunity to bring a whole new set of people who would never have thought of working in the food supply chain before into that sector, they’ll bring a whole lot of new thinking, they’ll bring a whole lot of opportunities to really reflect on the way we’ve done things in the past. I think there’s a real danger of applying technology to just replicate business as usual. Just because we’ve always done something this way. It’s largely because we’ve used humans, because systems haven’t been automated, because they’re highly variable. So as we look to adopt technology, it gives us an opportunity to just step back and really think about how we produce food, what our values are, what’s important to us in the food supply chain and working in the food supply chain, but also to consumers as well. I think that we face a real challenge right now, in terms of food insecurity right across the world. We need to really think about how we address those issues. That food is not just about the technical, it is about the socio technical aspects of the people, as well as the planet are central to our food supply chains. That means that we in the food supply chain, probably one of the rare sectors and industries because we have the opportunity to sequester carbon right now I’m sure that technology will come for other sectors, we have a real opportunity to lead the world in how we address some of the major issues and still seek to provide nutritious food for people’s well being. So if anybody out there is looking for challenges around this area and how they can individually get involved. The food industry and the food sector, food Systems are a really good place to be.

Dom Burch  18:03

Louise, it’s been absolute pleasure having you on the ubloquity the podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time. Louise Manning, Professor of sustainable agri food systems at LIAT thank you so much for coming on.

Louise Manning  18:03

It’s my pleasure.