Janet Reynolds is FoodFutureCo’s fellow and a co-founder of Waste for Good, a social enterprise building hyper-local networks to connect sustainably-minded food providers to a hub in the community, where food waste is converted into clean energy.
A Crisis in Vogue
In the last two years, we’ve witnessed celebrity chefs transform vegetable trimmings, damaged apples, and otherwise wasted food into ‘Dumpster Dive Vegetable Salad’ and other artful dishes for New York City diners. Denmark opened its first food surplus supermarket selling expired food with Princess Marie of Denmark in attendance. We may even soon be saying goodbye to the confusing “sell by” date labels that have caused consumers to throw out perfectly good and nutritious food.
Fighting food waste may be the trend du jour, but with almost 1 billion people malnourished, another 1 billion going hungry every year, and a third of all food produced globally (1.3 billion tons of food) going unused, we are still facing a serious food waste crisis.
Furthermore, the impacts of systemic food waste extend beyond the lost opportunity of feeding the hungry. In the U.S., 40 percent of all food produced is never eaten. We spend $218 billion a year—1.3 percent of GDP—on growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of all this food from farm to fork to landfill, squandering 20 percent of all freshwater, fertilizer, and cropland in the process. Globally, the direct economic cost of food waste is $750 billion per year, which doesn’t even account for the indirect ecosystem losses, such as land degradation, biodiversity loss, depletion of blue water, and impacts on climate change and human health. If rotting food were a nation, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world after the U.S. and China.
Food Waste Is a Solvable Problem
The good news is food waste is a solvable problem. ReFED, a collaborative initiative to reduce food waste, has identified 27 solutions with the potential to deliver $10 billion of annual economic value to society and create thousands of jobs in the U.S. alone. The stars have also aligned on the government front with the recognition of food waste reduction as one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the acknowledgement that food waste plays a pivotal role in achieving other SDGs, such as combatting climate change and ending hunger. Yet in order to meet the U.N.’s and the U.S.’s shared goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030, we will need more than government action. Mission-driven entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors must come together to create scalable solutions to curb food waste.
Those looking to keep up with the innovations in this constantly changing movement need look no further than ReFED’s newly launched Food Waste Innovator Database. As a living compilation of 400+ for-profit and nonprofit entities turning the food waste problem into an opportunity for social, economic, and environmental impacts, the tool provides the essential insights for anyone looking for scalable solutions. The Innovator Database builds on ReFED’s 2016 Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by creating a one-stop shop for investors, foundations, and the innovator community to understand and learn about food waste innovation—one of the four cross-cutting levers necessary for the U.S. to meet its goal of halving food waste by 2030,” says Chris Cochran, ReFED's Executive Director. “We will use existing insights and data from the tool to identify trends, growth areas, and gaps in food waste innovation, helping to drive development of the most efficient, scalable solutions, while attracting new sources of capital to this dynamic space."
Not all food waste solutions are created equal, however. By prioritizing solutions according to the EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy, beginning with prevention, recovery, and recycling (in that order), innovators can develop creative solutions to divert food waste from landfills and design it out of the supply chain altogether.
Ugly is The New Black
Not only is preventing food waste from occurring in the first place logical from a resource standpoint, it’s also economically desirable for buyers and sellers, especially when it comes to fresh produce. With one out of five fruits and vegetables destined for the landfill, simply because they do not conform to the industry’s standards of aesthetic perfection, the so-called "ugly produce" category is ripe for disruption. Recognizing that a crooked carrot or dimpled apple is no less nutritious or tasty, mission-minded startups such as Imperfect Produce, which delivers “unsightly” fruits and vegetables at a 30-50 percent discount to consumers, and Misfit Juicery, a premium cold-pressed juicer that bottles ugly produce, are offering farmers new sources of income. Ultimately, redefining what constitutes “good produce” is part of the battle.
Food Waste Is...Food
Another company bent on challenging perceptions around food waste is Toast Ale, whose unofficial mantra is “to save the world, you have to throw a better party than those trying to destroy it.” This UK-based company partners with bakeries that consistently overproduce bread, the “one food item that many food recovery organizations are inundated with,” turning it into premium craft pale ale instead. Meanwhile, Rise Products upcycles spent barley from microbreweries into nutrient-dense flour for bakers. “People don’t like us because we expand the definition of food waste...they don’t see spent grains as food,” says Ashwin Gopi, founder of Rise. “They see it as garbage from the moment it’s created.” Similarly, the team behind Regrained is creating granola bars with spent grain. From beer lovers to small batch granola manufacturers, Regrained’s vision is to “enable people to do more with less through creativity and innovation”, and of course “eat beer”. Needless to say, we need more like-minded entrepreneurs who are passionate about sustainable consumption and are willing to push the boundaries of what is possible.
Restaurants Could Be the Game Changer
Notorious for preparing more food than they can sell, restaurants and foodservice businesses stand to gain the most financially from improved waste tracking and analytics, according to ReFED’s 2016 Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste. More meals diverted from landfills and resources saved would also be a huge boon to the entire food system, since restaurants account for 40 percent of the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted globally. Existing waste tracking software helps food businesses monitor food waste levels and identify inefficiencies in operations, but it relies on manual data entry and weighing of food items, which can be prohibitively laborious. The integration of Internet of Things (IoT) could be a game changer. Innovators have already started designing intelligent packaging with built-in sensors that monitor the freshness of foods, and sensor technology could be applied throughout the supply chain to streamline operations. It could ultimately eliminate the need for manual entry in industrial kitchens as well as other time and labor intensive processes that are currently significant barriers to diverting food waste.
One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure
The 50,000 nonprofits fighting food insecurity in America understand this. What better way is there to dispose of surplus wholesome food than to give it to someone in need? Thanks to new online platforms such as SpoilerAlert and a cornucopia of other new food recovery mobile apps that facilitate the real-time matching of charities in need of food to food businesses with surplus food, non-profits can more efficiently continue feeding the millions who are food insecure. For food businesses, relying on donations or discounted sales of surplus food may not be a sustainable model long-term, but it is certainly more cost-effective than paying disposal fees to send perfectly edible food to the landfill. Perhaps the real value-add of these technological solutions is the insight they offer into the consistent causes of food waste and their recommendations for inventory optimization.
Harnessing Food Waste for Good
Even if we exhaust all prevention and recovery solutions, inevitably there will always be plate scrapings and some simply inedible food. These are currently destined for landfills, where rotting food produces methane gas—a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide and a major contributor to climate change. Turning inedible food scraps into clean energy tackles both issues. Enter HomeBiogas, an Israel-based company that built a household size biogas system that “converts food waste and animal manure into enough clean gas to cook 3 meals and into clean, natural, liquid fertilizer.” Household-scale solutions like these are important because 43 percent of the waste we generate occurs at home. Beyond the benefits of generating clean energy and fertilizer that can enhance soil quality, a unit installed in an Ugandan orphanage also serves to reduce indoor air pollution by providing a safer and healthier alternative to cooking with open fires. Other viable recycling solutions include composting as well as converting food waste into biodiesel, animal feed, fertilizer, and other valuable products.
At FoodFuture, we are entrepreneurs and investors ourselves who view the world with the glass half full. We believe—and ReFED’s Innovator Database confirms—that the solutions to the systemic global problem of food waste are diverse, vast, and profitable too. Doc’s world of throwing a banana peel into Mr. Fusion from Back to the Future may be closer than we think. We need forward-thinking entrepreneurs and investors to act today if we are to have have any chance at combatting climate change, improving livelihoods, and ending hunger.