Confessions of a rotting head of lettuce

wasted foodKenneth Scott Zuckerberg, Wells Fargo Senior Vice President and Strategist

Environmentalists, investors, and the public are finally recognizing that consumers and consumer-facing businesses play a greater role in food waste than farmers and packaged food companies. This blog frames the key issues and emerging technologies that can help increase food system efficiency in a “triple bottom line” manner ─ good for consumers, good for businesses, and good for the environment.

Food waste is an environmental problem

I recently attended two sustainability events which, not surprisingly, included dialogue about the contributors to climate change. The first was the annual Global Business Forum sponsored by international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer along with Columbia University’s Richman Center for Sustainability. The second event was an internal offsite hosted by Wells Fargo’s Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility team, and included a town hall meeting entitled “Impact Today – Solutions for a Sustainable Tomorrow.”

While most events like this call out agriculture’s role in global warming, I was very encouraged to see that both events touched upon an active, and often overlooked, contributor ─ food waste. Food production, and therefore food waste, squanders water, energy, and labor costs. But it also creates something environmentally harmful when uneaten food scraps are shipped to the landfill, where 83% of domestic food waste lands1. Food rot produces methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) that is considerably worse than carbon dioxide when viewed from an ecology standpoint.

Sources of Climate Change by Economic Sector

Source: Environmental Protection Agency and Climate of Hope, Copyright 2017 by Michael Bloomberg

How much food is wasted annually?

According to numerous sources ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency, USDA, the National Defense Council, and the United Nations, between 30% and 40% of all food produced annually in the United States is never eaten. Uneaten food not only costs more than $200 billion1 in financial terms, but it also consumes and does not replenish freshwater, an important and rapidly decreasing input for daily life.

Where in the value chain does waste occur?

More than 80% of food waste occurs at or near the downstream part of the value chain post processing, specifically at the distribution and consumption stages1. This contrasts with popular opinion that food waste occurs primarily at the farm gate or during manufacturing and packaging. The following table illustrates these points:

Sources of Climate Change by Economic Sector

Source: ReFED

What strategies exist to deal with uneaten food?

Food waste mitigation strategies generally entail prevention, reduction, recycling, and recovery. Prevention refers to reducing waste before it happens, such as during production and first stage food processing. Reduction focuses on efforts at work, school, and in the home, and involves more precise food purchases, attention to expiration dates, freezing leftovers, and portion efficiency. Recycling and recovery involve repurposing wasted food into animal feed, pet food, biofuels, energy generation (i.e., anaerobic digestion), and fertilizer.

What companies are active in the food waste prevention and recovery space?

Tremendous opportunities exist to reduce food waste through operational, supply chain efficiency, and packaging technologies. ReFED, a multi-stakeholder nonprofit, has actually identified 27 specific food waste prevention solutions on its website that can theoretically reduce waste by approximately 13 million tons equating to 21% of total food waste. Following are some of the emerging AgriFood Tech food waste mitigation companies I have come across while researching this topic:

  • Anuvia Plant Nutrients produces specialty fertilizer products from renewable biological materials derived from food waste as well as hog manure treatment systems.
  • Appel Sciences applies tasteless, edible coatings made from plant materials to avocados, citrus, and other fruit to extend product freshness.
  • Full Harvest is a business-to-business food marketplace for imperfect and/or surplus fresh produce that that connects farmers with food and beverage company buyers.
  • KDC Ag has commercialized a process that takes food waste from grocery stores and creates nutrient-dense fertilizer.
  • Spoiler Alert offers software as a service to more effectively manage unsold food inventory.
  • WisERG recycles food scraps from grocery stores and produces liquid fertilizer through a proprietary bio-digester.
  • Zest Labs prides itself on integrating advanced computing technologies (AI, analytics, and Blockchain) with smart wireless IoT sensors (located on pallets) to monitor freshness from production to delivery, and focuses on produce as well as animal and seafood protein.

Parting thoughts

Food waste is a major, but controllable, environmental problem that is exacerbated by inexpensive food prices and affluence, especially in developed economies like that of the United States. The paradox is that the wealthier our U.S. society gets, the more food it tends to waste, especially when food is relatively low cost relative to wage levels. The good news is that consumers and food retailers are in the front seat to drive positive change. And luckily, there are numerous startup technology companies focused on food waste prevention and recovery. But, the consumer can also contribute to the effort by purchasing and consuming food more efficiently.

1. ReFED