You’ve probably heard the widely-quoted factoid that the majority of food waste happens in the home. From grocery over-purchasing to over-zealous expiration dates to just plain forgetting to cook that cabbage you bought, it’s not exactly a surprise that the kitchen is where a lot of needless wastage takes place. Consequently, there are quite a few companies tackling home food waste, from Ovie’s freshness-tracking container tags to Mimica’s bumpy food labels.
So where does the rest of our food waste occur? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, when it comes to fresh produce (the most wasted foods, at least in industrialized countries), almost 1/3 happens along the supply chain. From lack of coordination and communication to inconsistent quality standardization, there are plenty of things that need to go right to get fresh food from A to B without it spoiling — and that doesn’t always happen.
However, there are a few tools and strategies that companies are using to try and reduce food waste at various points along the supply chain. Here are three to watch:
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of blockchain. (Actually, they might have subterranean blockchain by now, too.) But you might not know that quite a few companies are leveraging blockchain to fight food waste along the supply chain — or are at least thinking about it.
Estonian startup Delicia uses blockchain to create a platform from which retailers can sell nearly-expired food to local restaurants or consumers. Ripe.io is working to forge a “Blockchain for Food,” creating transparency at each step of the food system. Food traceability company FoodLogiQ recently launched an innovation lab which will implement blockchain pilot programs with their partners, who include Tyson Foods and Subway.
Blockchain fights supply chain food waste in a few ways: it helps companies keep track of all the touch points their product has passed through, from farm to shipping truck to retail shelf or restaurant cooler. So if a consumer gets sick from contaminated spinach, suppliers can track exactly which shipment of spinach from which farm caused the problem and dispose of it — without throwing away every bag and bunch in the store. It can also help restaurants and grocery stores track how much food they throw out, so they can adjust their order accordingly.
I don’t want to blow things out of proportion: it’s still early days for blockchain. And even if the public ledger software works exactly as it’s supposed to, it still places a lot of trust and power in each of the players that interact with a tomato as it passes from the farm to the grocery store. But it’s definitely a tool worth exploring.
Some companies are tackling food waste along the supply chain by turning to the food itself. Apeel creates non-toxic protective barriers for fruits and vegetables, made out of crops left behind in farm fields. With the coating, produce can stay fresh for nearly twice as long — which means less spoilage en route to retailers. Their tech is already being tested on avocados in some Costcos, and I fully expect to see it grow to more locations and perishables soon.
Across the pond, It’s Fresh! has a product which also extends produce life. The company, which started in 2010, makes sheets which absorb ethylene, the hormone which makes fruit and vegetables rot. The sheets can be cut to fit produce-packed palettes or small containers on grocery shelves. According to Simon Lee, one of the founders of It’s Fresh!, their sheets can extend produce life by 1-4 days in the home, and 1-4 weeks in transit. They’re working to integrate their technology into the film around the produce itself, so they can reduce packaging waste as well as food spoilage.
AI & Machine Learning
Artificial intelligence (AI) has been playing a growing a role in the food system, from robotic food delivery vehicles to dairy farming. (If you’re curious about how AI is affecting food startups, check out our podcast The Spoon: Automat.)
So it’s no surprise that companies are leveraging AI to reduce waste along the food supply chain. Agshift harnesses computer vision and machine learning to standardize produce quality ratings. By taking objective human ratings out of the equation, vendors and buyers don’t waste time or valuable produce over quality disputes, which can lead to canceled orders and unintended food waste.
In the same vein, Intello is using a combination of AI and computer vision to generate produce ratings. Their goal is more to help farmers get a fair price for their crops, but the outcome is the same; clear, objective quality assessment for fruit and veg means less bickering, fewer dissatisfied customers, and less overall wastage.
Walmart’s Eden technology harnesses machine learning to quantify freshness, so it can divert soon-to-expire produce to nearby stores and make sure it gets eaten before it’s past its prime.
None of these technologies is a cure-all in and of itself. And when it comes to food waste along the supply chain, we definitely still have a long way to go. But these three areas are definitely ones to keep an eye on — and, when combined, can hopefully reduce the amount of produce destined for the landfill.