Food waste at record highs – is technology the answer?

With food waste at record highs, businesses are leveraging technologies like blockchain, IoT and AI to tackle food spoilage and redistribution

It’s no secret that food waste is at an all-time high, with a staggering one-third of all food produced globally either lost or wasted – that’s 1.3 billion tonnes annually, enough to line up and circle the planet seven times over. 

According to the United Nations Environment Food Waste Index 2021, an estimated 17% of total global food production is wasted (61% from households, 26% from food service and 13% from retail), while 14% is lost from farm to retail stage. Add to this the agricultural stage, taking into account food loss during farming, and as much as 40% of all food is lost. 

Not only is such waste bad for business, amounting to a loss of US$400bn (roughly the GDP of Austria), but it damages efforts to help billions of people who are hungry, and harms the environment – significantly. 

Food waste and loss causes roughly 10% of global carbon emissions. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would have the third highest emissions after only the US and China. 

And with the world’s population expected to reach 10 billion by 2050, the problems of food security and environmental impact are only likely to increase if changes aren’t made, and fast. 

Pandemic increased awareness and sense of urgency

But things are changing, thanks in part to the pandemic, which has shone a light on the issue, as the fragility of our food chains are exposed. Nearly US$5bn of fresh fruit and veg was wasted in the first month of the pandemic due to the complex supply chain’s inability to quickly redirect shipping and distribution. 

And while consumers were already demanding transparency around food waste pre-pandemic, this has accelerated exponentially since the onset of COVID-19. 

According to PwC’s June 2021 Global Consumer Insights Pulse Survey, in just a six-month period, half of all global consumers said they have become even more eco-friendly and expect companies to follow similar eco-conscious practices. And in the UK alone, in the past year, there has been an 89% increase in food waste-related Google searches. 

And corporates are listening. Mentions of ‘food waste’ on corporate earnings calls tripled between the second quarter of 2016 and 2021’s second quarter, found a CB Insights report, while investment into food waste tech startups reached record levels. According to Adam Boutin, a partner at strategic investing firm Capital One Ventures, most companies “are feeling more pressure – and I mean that in a good way – to focus on ESG”. 

The pressure to make change is starker still considering the Sustainable Development Goals’ target of halving (per capita) global food waste by 2030. 

It’s a massive undertaking and one that requires collaborative action throughout the food chain, from farmers, governments and manufacturers through retailers and consumers. The good news is that collaborative action is becoming easier, not just because of increased commitment to change, but because technology is making change possible, and at a faster rate. 

Some governments are already on board with strategies to tackle their own food production, and waste. The UAE, which currently imports 90% of its food and wastes US$3.5bn each year, has committed to producing 50% of its food locally by 2051 with initiatives including construction of the world’s largest indoor vertical farming unit in Abu Dhabi and creation of Food Tech Valley, a hub for the incubation of R&D, tech and ideas to achieve zero and reduce waste. 

Singapore has also put its best foodtech foot forward with a recent injection of US$30m by Temasek and the government in the city-state’s Food Tech Innovation Centre designed to buoy investment in agtech and foodtech. 

“Food waste is a complex, but solvable issue that requires engagement from everyone across the food system,” says Dana Gunders, Executive Director of ReFED, and dubbed ‘the woman who helped start the waste-free movement’. 

“From creating more public awareness, to technology innovation, to reevaluating waste-ridden business models, the topic of food waste is finally starting to take centre stage. But a massive acceleration in effort is needed to reach the 2030 food waste reduction goals. That’s why we’re excited to see growing excitement around the space.” 

Businesses stepping up to the plate on food waste commitments

From farmers to retailers to grocers to startups, businesses are recognising that curbing food waste is good for the planet and good for business. 

UK grocer Tesco has pledged to end edible food waste entirely, discount retailer Aldi UK and Ireland says it will halve food waste by 2030, and US chain Walmart donates more than 745 million pounds of food globally through its food donation program. 

Some are involved in initiatives like 10x20x30, in which 10 of the world’s largest food retailers and providers, including Walmart and Tesco, each engage at least 20 suppliers to halve food loss and waste by 2030. Others are re-evaluating pandemic-impacted supply chains to focus on resilience, adopting new technologies driven by AI, machine learning, IoT and blockchain. 

Take online British supermarket Ocado, the world’s largest dedicated online supermarket, which in 2020 revealed near-zero food waste food figures (0.02%) in what it says is the lowest in the industry. The firm, which has taken the approach to drive down food waste in its supply chain, uses bespoke software which calculates pack items to reduce product damage and decrease food waste. 

“In 2020, our waste was 0.04%; this contrasts with the industry average waste figure of between 2% and 5%,” Ocado’s CEO Mel Smith told an international audience of food and drink industry leaders at City Food Lecture event early in 2021. “We produce hardly any food waste. This is because we have a really short supply chain, but also because we have a perfect view of what our customers have in their baskets, up to 28 days in advance. This means we are better able to predict what we need from our suppliers and minimise potential waste from buying too much.” 

Meanwhile, Amazon Fresh has pioneered a machine learning system leveraging data science to estimate future demand, ensuring they are buying products from manufacturers, distributors and local farmers with the most relevant selection and optimal delivery times to limit food waste.

And as grocery retailers and other companies prioritise their ESG commitments, startups offering tech-savvy ways to cut down on food waste are attracting increased funding. Investment in food waste startups reached a record US$4bn in 2021, showing that industries are starting to see solving food waste as a business opportunity, rather than just a matter of corporate social responsibility. 

VC firm Elemental Excelerator has shelled out around US$500,000 to five growth-stage companies addressing food waste, while Maersk Growth – the venture arm of the world’s largest transporter of food – has been an active investor in food waste tech, backing grain monitoring tech TeleSense and food blockchain startup Ripe.io, among others. 

Digital supply chain – leveraging IoT and blockchain

Technology is increasingly being used to tackle the issue of food waste and is proving especially impactful in providing a digital trail of the food’s journey throughout the supply chain, from farm to table. 

This is critical as 14% of total global food produced is lost between harvest and retail. Knowing at what part of the global supply chain problems arise is typically not known, but emerging technologies like IoT and blockchain can achieve this. 

Described as being “evolutionary” in the fight on food waste, blockchain has the ability to transform food production, increasing the level of safety, transparency and traceability of food from farm to table, and in turn limit waste, says Erik Valiquette, president of the Canadian Blockchain Supply Chain Association. Replacing the current process with a single digital ecosystem run on a blockchain “could be used to store timestamped activity and verify transactions throughout the food supply chain, while working in synergy with other technologies like AI robotics, scanners and IoT to create an infrastructure more efficient and transparent that the one currently in use”, says Valiquette. 

Take San Francisco-based startup Ripe.io. It uses blockchain to create a digital bridge between farmers, distributors, processors, traders, restaurants, grocers and consumers to record and share data on aspects of food’s journey from farm to fork – from the food’s origin and growing conditions to its transportation and contents. 

IoT connected devices are further being leveraged on the food journey to track and monitor produce and deliver real-time supply-chain transparency and traceability. Sensors on refrigeration units along with data and analytics can monitor fluctuations in performance to predict failures and lead to preventative action, so businesses can re-route or re-allocate produce. Similarly, monitoring sensors in bins offer real-time insights about type and quantity of food waste helping hotels and restaurants plan and reduce. And IoT connected sensors in packaging can help to determine the freshness of a product so distributors can redistribute accordingly, or consumers can use before shelf-life expiration. 

And this combined with cloud-based analytics has the potential to reduce food waste by 50% or more, claims post-harvest AgTech company Zest Labs, which works with growers, processors, distributors, shippers and retailers to improve delivered freshness and reduce waste. 

Zest Labs uses sensors to track the lifespan of fresh produce from the farm to the grocery store. The sensors, attached to pallets, gather information about harvest quality, ageing rates, field conditions and microclimate and uses data-driven analytics so decisions about where to ship the produce can be made. 

 

Wasteless

Shelf-life extension – keeping food fresh for longer

One of the biggest contributors to food waste in the supply chain is the decomposition and disposal of fresh produce, as nearly half of all fruit and vegetables produced globally are wasted each year, according to the UN. 

To tackle this, technology is being harnessed to leverage data and tangible insights so everyone from manufacturers to retailers can make informed decisions about ordering, distributing and merchandising to avoid waste. 

Award-winning US$20bn logistics firm Lineage Logistics is transforming the food supply chain by applying “Silicon Valley-style technology to the generations-old temperature-controlled logistics industry” to help minimise supply chain waste, says founder Kevin Marchetti. executive chairman of Lineage, which controls 25% of the US third-party cold food chain, uses AI, blockchain, IoT and machine learning to maintain freshness of food en route, including using IoT temperature and vibration sensors to ensure warehouses remain at the correct temperatures and refrigeration systems don’t fail. 

Claiming to reduce in-store food waste by up to 50%, Afresh harnesses AI to track demand making it “easier for grocers to manage all aspects of their fresh departments, and, in doing so, dramatically expand their profitability by preventing millions and millions of pounds of food waste,” says Matt Schwartz, CEO, Afresh. 

Nearly a third less food waste was the result of a collaboration run between a Spanish retailer and Wasteless. The Israeli startup uses AI-powered dynamic pricing to help supermarkets/online grocers recapture the full value of their perishable products and reduce waste, incentivising customers by reducing prices the closer a product gets to its ‘best before’ date. 

There are technologies too now helping to assess the freshness of food, so decisions can be made. At the storage stage, Strella Biotech leverages IoT networks and data analysis to interpret shelf life, by predicting the ripeness of fruit. It uses biosensors to monitor an increase in ethylene production in fruit, signalling when produce needs to get to consumers before spoiling. 

And still in its testing stages, Singaporean scientists have created an electronic ‘nose’ that uses AI to sniff out meat freshness. It reacts to the gases produced during decay offering transparency to help cut food waste while also assuring consumers that a food product is still safe to eat despite the fact it may have expired beyond its ‘best before’ labelling. 

Assessing freshness is being used extensively at retail level too as part of the packaging process. 

Packaging sensors to extend shelf life 

IoT sensors and data analysis are being used alongside packaging to trace, monitor and detect freshness. So-called intelligence packaging, which uses embedded time-temperature sensors or labels to monitor freshness, addresses the current arbitrary and inefficient system of ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates, which inevitably leads to unnecessary fresh produce being disposed of by retailers and consumers because it doesn’t look appealing or has expired beyond its ‘best before’ date. 

Israel-based Evigence Sensors uses food packaging labels with embedded sensors to detect freshness, with each sensor engineered to correspond to the time-temperature effects for the food it is designed for. Already being used by Russia’s largest food retailer X5 Retail Group, the sensor changes colour if the shelf life is about to expire or if not compliant with storage conditions. 

Similarly, UK startup BlakBear, founded by scientists from Imperial College, is targeting food manufacturers and retailers with its freshness sensor labels and a cloud API. The sensors measure the gases (microbiology) that come off protein from inside packages with data sent into the cloud via an app and machine learning determining the level of freshness. 

Redistributing food before it goes to waste 

Tackling both food waste/surplus and food insecurity, more recently there has been a surge of tech-enabled solutions empowering potential food waste distribution. 

Dubbed the world’s first end-to-end solution addressing both food waste and hunger, Copia uses analytics and waste management software to inform businesses of what is being wasted, and why, and to match them with donors to ensure any excess food is used to feed others. 

Copia has not only recovered more than five million pounds of edible food from landfills and provided businesses and non- profits with over US$21m in savings – think actionable insights to help them understand their food surplus trends to reduce over- purchasing – but they are feeding more than 5 million people with food that would be otherwise wasted. 

There has been a recent surge of apps in the redistribution of food waste space, connecting consumers with F&B outlets to give discounts on excess food at the end of each day – Too Good to Go operates in many cities across Europe and North America, while Yindii and Treatsure operate in Thailand and Singapore, respectively. 

Instock in The Netherlands looks to farmers, producers, packaging companies and brokers for surplus food to distribute onwards. While fast-growing UK-founded Olio, now used in more than 100 countries and in partnership with huge businesses like Tesco, redistributes food nearing its sell-by date. 

“Olio has grown five times over the last year, reflecting a step change that’s taken place as businesses and citizens look to be more sustainable and connect with their local communities,” says co-founder Tessa Clarke. “We have this enormous ambition because humanity cannot continue to puzzle over how to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees and feed a population of 10 billion – whilst continuing to throw away one third of the food we produce and consuming as if we have 1.75 planets.” 

Food for thought, indeed. 

 

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