There’s an alarming dichotomy around food and waste in the US and statistics show the problem is escalating year-on-year.
In 2018, one in seven Americans – around 50 million people – used food banks to avoid going hungry. In the same 12-month period, almost 40 percent of food in the US was wasted, with 35 million tons of fresh produce and prepacked foods going straight to landfill, 90 percent of which was thrown away while it was still perfectly safe to eat.
Food Tech innovators are working harder than ever to reduce food waste across the supply chain, targeting processes that are ripe for reinvention. From 2016 to 2019, the number of waste-related applications across Rabobank’s innovation platforms FoodBytes! and TERRA has tripled, from 8 to 22 percent of total applications. This year, we’ve been able to see which trends are gaining the most traction, from farm to fork.
On the production level, farmers are eliminating agricultural waste through biological crop enhancements. According to a study from the University of Minnesota, 30 percent of fertilizer use, 31 percent of cropland, and 25 percent of total freshwater consumption is used towards producing uneaten food. New technologies are helping improve yields and minimize losses, including the production of new enzymes as pesticide replacement. Companies are also utilizing data analysis to predict which compounds lead to better growth, allowing farmers to be more precise with their use of resources.
Other startups have discovered opportunity in creating a smarter, more transparent supply chain. The processes of handling, storage and distribution contribute to an estimate 22 percent of food waste (University of Minnesota). Packaging solutions can sense which of these processes increase the risk of food spoilage, allowing managers to optimize the journey of each of their products. Additionally, marketplaces that assess real-time demand can better inform stocking and pricing decisions to reduce the amount of unsold food at point-of-sale.
Consumer demand, and more importantly willingness to pay for environmentally responsible products are also on the rise. According to the Retail Industry Leaders Association, 68 million American adults base purchasing decisions on their own personal, social and environmental values and are willing to pay up to 20 percent more for environmentally sound products. This has bolstered growth in a number of waste-reducing trends, including up-cycling. Startups are giving waste a second life by partnering with farmers and kitchens to turn what would normally be discarded into nutrient-rich food products such as animal feed, protein flour and even beer.
We talked to five of our recent waste-innovating FoodBytes! alumni about their products and technologies, the challenges they face and what they need to help turn waste problems into profitable solutions.
Matt Schwartz, Afresh Technologies
How is Afresh helping retailers reduce waste and benefit consumers?
Fresh produce, meat, seafood, deli and baked goods are critical to a grocer’s success, essential to consumers and important for our environment – and yet, they’re almost completely overlooked by technology. The fact is, most existing supply chain systems have been designed for shelf-stable items that come with bar codes and the results can be devastating for fresh food businesses who, up until now, have had to put up with excess waste, stock-outs and food that isn’t always as fresh as it could be. At Afresh, we solve these problems with AI powered technology and human-centered design that allows grocers to reduce food waste by 50% plus, ensure produce is fresher for longer and increase profitability significantly.
What has been your biggest business challenge and what do you need to grow?
Recruiting and recruiting! For better or worse, we’ve set the bar high in terms of our team-building efforts and finding the right people takes time. The work we’ve carried out to date has underlined how wide reaching the problem of waste is and how valuable our technology can be. And, while we were fortunate to bring together such a talented and passionate team early on, to keep moving forward at the pace we need to, we need more gifted and enthusiastic teammates. We’re currently hiring across our engineering, product, design, and customer success areas and would love to hear from anyone who believes they can help Afresh make a difference.
Rui Lee, BioKind
Tell us more about how BioKind is using waste to revolutionize the animal feed industry?
BioKind is tackling overfishing and deforestation that’s occurring in the name of aquaculture feed. Using zero-value, non-edible crop waste, we produce a high-protein feed ingredient that gives fish, shrimp and livestock the protein they need to thrive, and offers an alternative to the destructive status quo, of wild-fish and soy. Our protein is produced through the natural fermentation of processed crop residues, like stems and leaves. It has a minimal carbon footprint, uses almost no water and is highly efficient in terms of land use. Everything we use is fully traceable too, making our feed one of the finest examples of waste reduction and re-purposing ever realized in the F&A industry.
What’s the next step towards commercialization?
As with any early-stage company, trying to achieve everything you need to on a shoe-string budget is a major challenge. We’ve been able to boost our reserves with competition wins and cash prizes and we’ve just secured a grant to finish our lab-scale R&D. The next stage for us is building a pilot production plant – that’s a key milestone in our plans to up-scale. To get there we need to finish our last strand of R&D and raise another seed round. We’re grateful to have had solid investor interest from very early on and with their help, we’re confident BioKind can play a leading role in waste reduction.
David Kat, Wasteless
Expiration and price are inextricably linked to waste, but retailers don’t always make the connection. How is Wasteless changing that narrative?
Food waste is responsible for the single largest carbon emission on the planet and threatens global access to food. The ecosystem is broken, and food retailers need a long-term fix. That’s where Wasteless comes in, using dynamic pricing to reduce waste and the billion-dollar loss in weekly grocery sales.
We provide real-time tracking technology that allows retailers to monitor stock levels and vary prices depending on how long a product has before it reaches expiry, updating in real-time using factors like supply, demand, public holidays, location and even the time of day. As a result, grocers sell more and waste less, food producers can increase supply chain efficiencies and the consumer has more choice on how much they spend. For many smaller retailers, the cost of food wasted can match the profit made from fresh products, which means revenue has the potential to double in some cases.
The retail market offers huge opportunity, but it can be a hard nut to crack. Tell us about how you’ve broken through.
Retailers understand the cost and impact food waste is having, they even know they need help solving the problem. It’s the fact that our system is a light integration that sits on top of business-as-is, that grocers sometimes struggle to get their head around. IT projects have a reputation for being big, costly and complicated, so a customer-centric design that puts the retailer and their infrastructure first can come as a surprise. CFOs don’t expect to see the return on investment as quickly as they do either, so while they’re good problems to have, overcoming common misconceptions is a challenge.
With that in mind, education is fundamental to our growth plans. Food waste and the toll it takes on a company’s P&L is too often chalked up to the cost of doing business. Retailers have bought into the notion that an attractive display may mean over-purchasing, they’ve normalized the difficulties around stock control, roll with arbitrary discounts to clear stock and simply accept that products nearing expiry are only good for landfill.
Solveiga Pakštaitė, Mimica
How is Mimica disrupting an industry in which expiration dates are built around worst-case scenarios and up to 60% of food waste is unnecessary?
Mimica Touch is a patented label with a surface that changes from smooth to bumpy when a food has reached its use by date. Meaning consumers can buy, eat and enjoy food with confidence, retailers can safely extend a product’s shelf life, and everyone knows when food has spoiled. Mimica’s technology is calibrated to match specific foods and the label adjusts to conditions, taking account of the food’s environment and how it might affect its quality and lifespan, reducing waste and improving safety. As a solution, it creates a massive opportunity for retailers who can sell for longer, and for consumers it’s an inclusive invention that will allow everyone to save money, get more value and waste less.
What is the biggest challenge you face in scaling up your revolutionary technology?
I was at a conference last week and took the opportunity to ask some dairy farmers whether they think much about the amount of milk that goes to waste. The answer? ‘Not at all – the more customers waste, the more I sell.’ And therein lies our biggest challenge, overcoming the belief within the food industry that food waste is good for sales and the bottom line.
A big part of what I do, is helping people understand the reasons why this is not just untrue, but counterproductive. In fact, helping consumers reduce waste has been proven to increase brand loyalty and influence brand switching. What food producers sometimes fail to grasp is that most people feel guilty about wasting food and associate those negative feelings with the brand. And so, a company or product that helps you reduce waste has more success when it comes to developing trust, loyalty and brand advocacy.
Debunking the myth that food waste drives sales is equally important because when people trust that they’ll use the whole product, they’re inclined to buy more, so a bigger pack size or a second pack is likely to go in shopping basket. There’s evidence to suggest that half of the savings customers make from reducing waste is reinvested in other food products, often of higher brand quality, so there’s an exciting opportunity to trade up.
David Jackson, Winnow
How is Winnow helping reduce restaurant waste around the world?
Our technology and digital tools are incorporated into working kitchens to collect data on the food that’s being wasted and why, providing chefs with the data they need to reduce waste by 40%-70% and improve margins by up to 8%. The information is also used to inform food orders and menu design and improve everything from processes to environmental footprint.
We have offices in London, Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai and Iowa City and Winnow technology is currently used in 1,000 sites in over 40 countries by brands like Compass Group, Elior, IKEA, Hilton, Accor Hotels, IHG and Carnival Cruises.
What impact have you made to date and what does the future of waste reduction look like from Winnow’s perspective?
Kitchens are busy, sometimes chaotic places so developing technology for that kind of environment was a big challenge. Our mission from day one was to create a solution that makes recording food waste quick and painless, allowing chefs to categorize waste in seconds and get on with their day.
Today, our unique technology currently saves over $30m in annual food costs and prevents 23 million meals from going in the trash unnecessarily. They’re achievements we’re very proud of, but with the estimated food waste for commercial kitchens sitting at around $100bn a year, we know there’s some way to go.
We believe we need to grow together as an industry to make lasting change, including the ambition to cut global food waste in half by 2030. That means F&A leaders, influencers and innovators like Winnow stepping up, speaking out and delivering solutions that enable chefs to run smarter kitchens that do the right thing for their business and the environment.