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Supply Chain

Solving Food and Agriculture Challenges through Global and Cross-Cultural Collaboration


The MIT Sloan Food Supply Chain and Analytics Sensing (FSAS) Initiative was highlighted during MIT Sloan Reunion 2023.

Retsef Levi (J. Spencer Standish (1945) Professor of Management; Professor of Operations Management; Faculty Director of FSAS) and Karen Zheng (George M. Bunker Professor; Associate Professor of Operations Management) presented their work in the session, “Innovation of Agriculture and Food Systems through Supply Chain Analytics and Sensing.”

FSAS has three major focuses that address worldwide food and agriculture challenges: supply chain and market design optimization, management of human health risks in food supply chains, and access to healthy food. The initiative is using analytics to optimize food and agriculture systems to improve the welfare of consumers, employers, and workers.

Food safety in China

FSAS utilizes the expertise of its multidisciplinary faculty to conduct research in diverse countries such as China, India, and Indonesia. One current major project funded by the Walmart Foundation takes place in China and involves key collaborations to address food contamination.

“As part of this project, we are collaborating with five Chinese universities, companies, and institutions that never worked together before working with MIT,” said Levi. “MIT is facilitating collaboration, not only between MIT and other organizations but also across organizations in China.”

After determining where the risk of contamination enters the Chinese food supply chain, the team created an interactive visualization tool that identifies high-risk manufacturers that sell food to retail stores. They are currently working to develop technology that will allow farms and wet markets to rapidly test their food for contamination.

Levi pointed out that this work in China can be applied to other geographic locations. The project in China was inspired by previous work that FSAS has done with the United States Food and Drug Administration.

Employee welfare in India

Zheng then presented on a project in Karnataka, India that focused on increasing welfare and productivity for smallholder food producers who lack access to information and technology. She began the project by meeting with FSAS’s research collaborators in India as well as employees in the agriculture supply chains.

“It is really eye-opening going into some of these very remote regions, having the opportunity to interact and talk with these market participants directly and really understand what are the true challenges that they are facing and how we can help them,” said Zheng.

The research team launched a unified market platform in Karnataka to allow agriculture traders to sell their commodities while giving them access to pricing information and resources. They increased trader participation on this platform by implementing a two-stage auction model for selling commodities. This intervention successfully yielded a 3.6% increase in the average weekly market price, which represents a substantial income increase for farmers that trade in the platform.

Professors Zheng and Levi address the audience at their MIT Sloan Reunion 2023 session.

Credit: Barry Hetherington


FSAS continues to collect data on this initiative and has found that its success continues in each future selling season. This research’s impact will reverberate well beyond the commodities and markets FSAS initially studied.

“The government is quite happy with this implementation, and they are eager to roll this out to other commodities and other markets as well,” explained Zheng.

Environmental sustainability in Indonesia

The final research project promotes the reduction of carbon emissions in Indonesia. FSAS has developed platform technologies to digitize and optimize the first mile of oil pump production in this Indonesian market. The researchers are currently working on designing carbon reward teams to motivate these farmers to engage in sustainable farming practices. This project involves the same type of large-scale collaboration that the others do.

“Like all the other projects that we have shared so far, this is a very much on-the-ground project and effort. We have been working with or developing our relationship with local organizations in Indonesia,” Zheng said.

The future of FSAS

Levi ended the session with a discussion of FSAS’s future research plans. They plan to examine water scarcity, water allocation, flooding, and contamination in Thailand. They will also continue addressing food safety in China. Lastly, they plan to use personalized advanced data science to increase access to healthy food in the U.S. and explore its connection to reducing food waste.

No matter what issue FSAS is researching, they make sure to approach it holistically, considering cultural, social, and economic issues. They emphasize understanding cultural and behavioral norms in collaborating countries. Support for future research is needed to continue these efforts and learn how they can be used to advance social good in these countries.

During the post-session Q&A, Zheng was asked about the potential for the unfair distribution of increased agricultural income between Indian farmers and their government.

“I believe that there are going to be opportunities for win-win in the supply chain,” she replied. “Of course, it also requires much more longer-term research, which we are doing right now.”

For more info Haley Bierman Development Writer (617) 253-7318