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Research Examines Integrative Technology in Ag Exports

Ag industry’s readiness for next generation of data sharing and integration remains hazy

According to recent USDA-sponsored research from Cyrus Ramezani and Chris Carr, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated cracks in the U.S. intermodal-transportation supply chain.

Inefficiencies that were frustrating pre-pandemic are now significant roadblocks to moving cargo and staying competitive in overseas markets.

To seal these systemic “cracks,” shippers, especially agricultural exporters, have long voiced a need for more reliable, timely, and transparent information in moving cargo.

Such information is necessary during “normal” times. In extraordinary times, this information is critical to keeping supply chains as fluid and resilient as possible.

Despite a clear need for quality information, however, the industry’s readiness for the next generation of data sharing and integration remains hazy.

Currently, the transportation and logistics industries are entering a period of dynamic and fundamental change. The use of shared applications, cloud-based technologies, and collaborative data platforms are becoming essential for coordinating information and logistics between trading partners and service providers.

The new technologies and processes offer multiple benefits, including minimizing operating costs, optimizing supply chain integration, and increasing market power through customer-focused fulfillment.

Ramezani and Carr studied the fragmentation and impacts of digital technologies in the realm of containerized agricultural exports.

This article briefly recaps their findings and looks at recent efforts of government and industry to address challenges arising from outmoded technologies.

Over the past decade, the logistics industry has seen such an explosion of new technologies and investment that some agricultural exporters argue that the sheer number of solutions is starting to exacerbate the problem of technology dispersion and fragmentation.

To address this concern, the federal government is taking steps to help the private sector reach a new standard of transparency.

Efforts toward a national standard

The Departments of Agriculture and Transportation recently released separate supply chain assessments, as directed by President Biden’s Executive Order on American Supply Chains.

Both reports recommended developing a national portal for transportation and supply chain information. Such a portal is intended to standardize and pool information — facilitating transparency and interoperability and streamlining export logistics. Two major efforts are now underway to develop such a portal.

Sponsors of both efforts are working in concert to coordinate and support the other.

FLOW. The Biden Administration recently launched a pilot program, the Freight Logistics Optimization Works (FLOW), to develop an information-sharing platform that can serve the diverse parts of the goods movement supply chain.

FLOW’s 18 initial participants represent the supply chain’s diverse perspectives, including private businesses, trucking, warehousing, and logistics companies, ports and more.

In collaboration with the Administration, these stakeholders will help develop a “proof of concept” information-exchange platform to ease supply chain congestion, expedite the movement of goods, and ultimately, cut costs for American consumers.

SCORe Coalition. Concurrent with the FLOW pilot, a private-sector initiative is in the works, spearheaded by the Supply Chain Optimization and Resilience (SCORe) Coalition.

SCORe represents some of the largest U.S. beneficial cargo owners (BCOs), spanning industries of retail, consumer brands, convenience stores, dairy foods, and health care and safety equipment and supplies. The coalition also represents the two largest U.S. container ports, as well as leaders in supply-chain transportation and logistics, digitization, and engineering.

To the White House and multiple Government agencies, SCORe has advocated leveraging digital tools and international standards—in particular, through deploying a national freight data portal. In SCORe’s concept, the national portal would be voluntary, nonregulatory, technology neutral, and private-sector driven.

Like FLOW’s concept, the portal would ensure the interoperability of different supply-chain stakeholder systems. It would allow for appropriate data sharing, end-to-end visibility for specific shipments in real time, and more robust predictive analytics for long-term planning.

A third effort to address export-logistics challenges takes a different approach from that of the portal development projects:

MTDI. In December 2021, the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) launched the Maritime Transportation Data Initiative (MTDI) to identify data constraints that impede the flow of ocean cargo and add to supply chain inefficiencies.

FMC intends the project to establish best practices and standards for accessing and transmitting data that are essential for a reliable, stable ocean transportation system.

This effort focuses on gaps in the protocols for information sharing. Through the first half of 2022, FMC Commissioner Carl Bentzel is convening a series of meetings with maritime and intermodal stakeholders.

Their initial findings will be presented at a data summit hosted by the FMC on June 1.

Moving toward a sustainable, interoperable transportation ecosystem

Transitioning between legacy systems (with which many agricultural exporters still struggle) and next generation collaboration requires trust and neutral-party facilitation.

In concert with evolving improvements to physical infrastructure, enhanced technology will fill gaps in the supply chain and keep U.S. shippers globally competitive in the long run.

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