How innovation is answering the challenge of food waste

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Innovation targets food waste in the supply chain ©iStock
Innovation targets food waste in the supply chain ©iStock
Food waste is a significant issue up and down the supply chain. Emerging food tech innovations are stepping up to meet the challenge.

Approximately one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted according to the United Nations. At the same time, one in nine people globally go to bed hungry while half of all child deaths are related to malnutrition.

The growing world population – forecast to reach roughly 9bn by 2050 – looks set to exacerbate the problem. With limited land and water resources, concern is mounting over whether the food system as it stands will be able to cope.

Environmental impact

More food reaches landfill and incinerates than any other waste, according to estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency. 

Food waste is the third largest producer of methane gas, behind China and the USA, making it an important contributor to global warming.

Cutting food waste is moving up the agenda, John Kerry, former US Secretary of State, told the Seeds and Chips conference in Milan.

“We have to talk about every part of the food chain. Growing and raising food is only part of the challenge. We have to be better stewards of the food we have… Shame on us when it is just a management issue.

“Think of the natural resources we would save – water, land, energy – if food production was more effective.”

‘We are poorly handling the food we have’

Andrew Ive, a partner at New York-based food accelerator Food X, concurs that the challenge we face is not necessarily the need to produce more food. Rather the global food system needs to produce more efficiently.

“There is enough but we are poorly handling the food we have,”​ he suggested. “It is a matter of supply chain and distribution more than increased production.”

Ive revealed that 10-15% of start-up applicants that approach Food X are working on business models to tackle food waste and build a more sustainable system.

Lucia Chierchia, managing partner at incubator Gellify, said that she too is seeing an increase in innovation as innovators respond to the need for “a new business model​”.

For example, she explained: “I have seen so many innovations coming through for food freshness detection.”

Biggest gains in supply chain

Renske Lynde, co-founder and managing director of the Food System 6, insisted that answers to food waste lie in an understanding of the interdependence and interactive nature of elements in the food chain.

“There is an opportunity to take a more systems based approach,”​ she suggested.

There are opportunities to cut food waste throughout the entire food chain, from the farm level right through to the dining table. However, while consumers account for approximately 20% of food waste, changing behaviours and consumption patterns takes time. The quick wins for food waste lie with farmers, manufacturers and retailers.

Innovation addresses weak links

At a farm level, significant amounts of fruit and vegetables are wasted because they fail to meet the aesthetic standards of supermarkets. In the UK, for instance, research from food and environment charity Feedback, found around 16% of all produce grown is wasted every year.

San Francisco-based Treasure8 views this as an important opportunity to “capture food waste and turn it into ingredients at a large scale”,​ founder Timothy Childs said.

“We are trying to go big,”​ he explained. “We plan to capture food waste and turn it into ingredients at a large scale… We are focusing on where we can get reliable supplies of food waste.”

Moving up the supply chain, innovators are also focusing their efforts on how waste from the production process can be brought back into a circular economy model.

Federica Zaccheria of Italian National Research Council is working to develop “technological solutions​” to this problem via “chemical transformation​”. Currently, two projects are in development for rice and coffee roasting chains.

In rice processing, there is potential for extracted oils for use in the production of emulsifiers, while sterols and proteins could become food additives or taste enhancers, she suggested. Likewise, fats and waxes that are by-products from coffee roasting could be used by the cosmetics industry while other waste streams can be utilised in paper production.

This sees waste residues redeployed as “new resources within the circular economy model”,​ Zaccheria said.

“Waste bio engineering is a model that can be applied to other food supply chains. It takes the finding of technological chemical solutions to valorise waste streams.”

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Innovative preservation techniques that extend shelf life can also be used to cut waste. Apeel Sciences has developed a coating based on the “thin polymeric barrier”​ that plants evolved to protect themselves as they evolved from water- to land-based organisms.

“What we do at Apeel is find and isolate those molecules,”​ CEO James Rogers explained. This is then turned into a water soluble powder-based preservative. Fruit and vegetable producers mix the powder with water and dip produce in the taste and texture neutral liquid. This process can double – or even quadruple – the shelf life of fresh produce, Rogers claimed.

Apeel’s solution is rolling out in the US and the company hopes to gain regulatory approval for European markets in the near-term.

Retailers are also under pressure to reduce the amount of food they waste and Spanish start-up Wasteless believes price optimisation can help.

The group supplies software to retailers that automatically alters the price of a product based on how near its sell by date the item is.

“Retail is a big area for gain,”​ Wasteless’s Tomas Pasqualini told us. And he believes growing awareness of the issue is making retailers more willing to think outside the box as they look for solutions.

“Food waste is a trendy topic. It is not only about cost [to the supermarket operator] but also about the environment. Tests with our system show a 30% reduction in food waste and increased sales, optimising the supermarket operation.”

Wasteless’s technology has been rolled out in a pilot programme with Spanish supermarket Dia across 30 SKUs. The retailer is currently in discussions about scaling up.

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