In recent years, farmers have been repeatedly urged to produce more food to feed a world population that is expected to hit almost 10 billion people by 2050.
At the same time, food waste is a growing concern, leading some to argue there’s already enough food being produced in the world, and the real solution lies not with producing more, but with doing a better job of ensuring it’s actually consumed.
“So much waste happens at the consumer end of the supply chain. We have enough but we are poorly handling what we have in the Western world,” said Andrew Ive, managing director and partner of Food-X, a food tech accelerator.
Ive was part of a panel discussion on food waste and sustainability at the recent Global Food Innovation Summit I attended in Milan.
“For example, only about 50 per cent of bananas get to the consumer and a big chunk of those don’t get eaten because they go black sitting on counters,” Ive said.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, approximately one-third of the food produced for human consumption — about 1.3 billion tons — is lost or wasted. That costs industrialized countries around US$680 billion.
More than 40 per cent of these losses happen at the retail and consumer levels, not on the farm or in processing.
Canadians waste 396 kilograms of food per capita annually, according to a 2018 report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an agency set up under the existing North American Free Trade Agreement.
The global innovation and technology community has been working on waste reduction solutions all along the food chain. The CEO of a Chicago food business incubator points to “upcycling” — taking something undesirable and turning it into something more appealing instead of just discarding it.
“We are seeing innovation around how to transform something that is equally nutritious but is considered imperfect; that’s where we see a movement of upcycling — transforming into something more edible or that we deem more appetizing,” said Natalie Shmulik of The Hatchery at the summit.
Cricket flour as a high-protein ingredient is more appealing to western consumers than the idea of eating the whole insect, for example. Other examples include turning overripe or waste fruit into juices or dried fruit snacks. A case in point is the coffee cherry. These are the fruits whose pit is the coffee bean. Until now, they’ve been dumped after the pit has been removed, but the cherries themselves are high in healthy anti-oxidants, and processes are being developed to transform them into a popular tea instead.
According to Shmulik, it’s also a matter of changing the terminology around food from “expiration” to “best before” dating, for example, to let consumers know food is still edible and nutritious.
“The market is excited and demanding the use of these products, but it’s also a matter of education and shifting the language — we’re much more apt to consume something upcycled than ‘ugly,’” Schmulik said.
That’s an approach used by Loblaw, one of Canada’s main retail chains, when it launched its “Naturally Imperfect” line of produce. This line costs consumers about 30 per cent less on average than their “perfect” counterparts and consists of misshapen or undersized fruits and vegetables that would previously have been discarded or not even harvested.
According to Ive, his accelerator also invests in upcycling ventures, such as U.S.-based Rise, a company that rescues spent brewing grains from going into landfills and turns them into low-carb, high-fibre and high-protein flour that’s marketed as a “super ingredient.”
Another U.S. startup, Fora Foods, has created a vegan-friendly butter alternative using the leftover water after cooking chickpeas. This water was also previously discarded, even though it’s high in proteins, starches and other soluble solids from the chickpeas.
“Upcycling isn’t just ugly fruit, it’s taking the derivative for existing production cycles that used to go into landfills and rivers and converting them into something useful,” Ive said.
There are a plethora of other technology-based approaches to reducing food waste too. Here is a sampling:
Feedback is a phone app that lets Toronto consumers buy restaurant meals about to be discarded at a fraction of the price. Participating restaurants post their offerings on the app along with the window of availability before the food is thrown out.
Phenix is a European startup that last fall raised 15 million Euros (C$23 million) for its turnkey service that helps divert unsold food from landfills to alternative uses like charities, animal feed or recycling.
U.K.-based Tenzo uses artificial intelligence to analyze data ranging from sales and inventory to social media and weather changes to help restaurants do a better job of predicting everything from booking staff to ordering food — all with the goal of reducing waste and lowering costs.
AgShift is using machine learning to build what it says is the world’s most autonomous food inspection system to assess produce quality and ripeness at food processing facilities, making internal inspections more accurate and consistent, and reducing rejection rates. Expansion into nuts and seafood is now underway.
Plus a Bill Gates-supported startup, Apeel, has developed a plant-based powder called Edipeel that fruit and vegetable growers can mix with water and apply to the outside of their produce before shipping. An alternative to the wax currently being used, the technology maintains freshness by warding off oxygen and maintaining moisture levels. It’s currently being trialed on avocados in grocery stores in the U.S. Midwest, including about 30 Costco locations.