Mercabarna: data and technology to improve energy efficiency and avoid food waste
Image of the activity in Mercabarna.

Like a little big city. 24,000 people parade through the 95 hectares of Mercabarna – the wholesale market of Barcelona – every day, including wholesalers and direct employees of the market, and some 14,000 vehicles that transport 2.3 million tons of fresh food to supply about 10 million people. Within this venue, something as crucial as the future of food is at stake: how and what we will eat in the coming years. In the case of Spain, it is also one of the economic activities that generates the greatest wealth – 9.2% of GDP and 12.3% of total employment, according to the National Institute of Statistics. And to face this challenge, Mercabarna has embarked on a deep digitization process with several objectives: among them, improving energy efficiency and avoiding the waste of the thousands of tons of food that are lost each year.

The first link in that transformation comes from data science. Jordi Valls, general director of Mercabarna, regrets the enormous amount of information that is wasted. With good data management, to which we add artificial intelligence, it would be easier to act both in real time and in the short and medium term to improve the operation of such a complex installation. “Today, we get some information on incoming products and vehicles, but we need to really take advantage of it. Get all the value out of it to improve distribution, food safety and resilience throughout the industry chain ”, he argues.

Valls’s words do not mean that at Mercabarna they are sitting idly by. Quite the contrary. The transformation has been going on for years, which has spawned a handful of innovative projects on a global scale. According to Pablo Vilanova, Mercabarna’s strategy director, in sustainability – he prefers to speak of a circular bioeconomy – and energy efficiency have high digital value initiatives. Regarding the first, the maxim with which they work is clear: reduce food waste. The food use center, the intelligent organic matter compactors and the modernization of the green dot, for which they have invested six million euros, seek to halve this waste in four years. That is, to recover in that period of time about 45,000 tons.

Until reaching that figure, technology provides transcendental information. For example, in the containers and compactors, which are completely sensorized, as well as in the recycling center, companies and Mercabarna know instantly which products or parts of them are thrown away – some go to food banks and others not. they have more travel. “When we talk about waste we refer to the product that cannot be marketed. If we reduce them as much as we think, companies will take more advantage of food and consumers will improve their diet, for example, knowing what is the traceability of what they eat at home ”, explains Vilanova.

Energy efficiency not only refers to how to manage the market facilities, where they have already introduced a program that analyzes energy deviations or a photovoltaic farm that floods all the roofs and self-supplies the site, but also to mobility, accesses and distribution chain. As Valls points out, it is crucial to fix the energy mix of transport in the market – the combination of the different energy sources, which is currently 90% fossil – but this process must be accompanied by the change in logistics systems in the last mile, the management of transport and distribution on the last journey, just before the final delivery of the product. “Each merchandise goes with its carrier, which favors pollution in metropolitan areas. This must change; and the change is digital, ”says Mercabarna’s digital director.

Distribution platforms

The change referred to by Valls must be accompanied by the policies of the Town Halls. But Mercabarna is contributing to this with the creation of digital platforms to unify distributions. The take-off of electric mobility will contribute to the decarbonisation of the agri-food sector, although something as simple as an application or a program that brings together products and routes has a direct impact on the sustainability of the industry —in Barcelona alone, about 7,000 move daily. vehicles to supply stores and supermarkets. “These apps they help shoppers and retailers share transportation. If two companies want to bring their products to the same point, it is enough to move one vehicle and not one for each company ”, Vilanova ditch.

Among the projects designed to combat the climate emergency, the investment of which is close to 23 million euros, includes everything from electric recharging points to the automation of accesses through smart parking spaces – according to data provided by Mercabarna, 30 % of the vehicles go around the facilities until they reach their destination. Technology thus becomes an indispensable ally to undertake a transformation that, in the words of Valls, has to win five years into the future. “The arrival of European funds will help digitization accelerate even more. We want to guarantee the food supply; and this happens by innovating like never before ”, he argues.

Apart from the money coming from Brussels, at Mercabarna they are eagerly awaiting the effective deployment of 5G networks. “It will accelerate the initiatives underway and will give support to those we have programmed, such as a pilot of forklifts and electric bikes in which an algorithm warns these vehicles in case it foresees that they may collide”, explains Vilanova.

The Spanish agri-food sector is a benchmark in different areas, such as innovation and food science. The way forward, at least as indicated by those who know the industry, are both the Netherlands, baptized worldwide and Food Valley, such as the international market of Rungis, in France. His projects exude technological ambition. Not in vain what is at stake at this time, regardless of the level of transformation undertaken or to be undertaken, is the future of world food. “Decarbonisation, innovation and digitization are the great drivers of core markets. And now we have to take another leap. Evolve cold chains, take the energy transition seriously or how to improve distribution. Key areas in the coming years ”, concludes Valls.

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