Although 2.3 billion people around the world experience moderate or severe food insecurity, around 40% of all food produced globally goes to waste, according to a study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund and supermarket chain Tesco.
In the US, this means as many as 34 million citizens experience hunger, while food waste costs the country the equivalent of $408 billion a year, according to Feeding America, which runs a nationwide network of food banks.
The UK is no better. It throws away 9.5 million tonnes of waste each year, despite 8.4 million people living in food poverty and 25 million tonnes of CO2 being emitted as a result.
The challenge is that food is wasted at all stages of the production and distribution process. Crops, for example, are left in fields due to gluts or low market pricing. Supermarkets reject misshapen produce and inconsistent policies around date labels mean households throw away goods that are still safe to eat.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that this situation is no longer sustainable. A new report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) entitled ‘The Future of Food and Agriculture: Drivers and triggers for transformation’ was released at the end of last year. It revealed that:
If current trends and drivers affecting agrifood systems [commercial farming and its supply chain] do not change, the sustainability and resilience of agrifood systems will be seriously under threat and food crises are likely to increase in future…There is growing evidence that currently prevailing agricultural practices which rely on the intensive use of agrochemical inputs and energy, are endangering the future of agri-food systems.
As a result of the persistent overuse of natural resources, huge greenhouse gas emissions and unprecedented loss of biodiversity, hunger and food insecurity are on the rise and billions of people lack access to healthy diets.
In fact, agri-food systems account for about one third of carbon emissions worldwide, a figure that is only likely to increase as the world population continues to grow. Key challenges in addressing the issue include disjointed and fragmented regulation and the complexity of, and lack of transparency across, domestic and international supply chains.
Making the food supply chain Greener
Dan Yates, Co-Founder and CEO of Greener, a matchmaking platform that connects sustainable food and drink providers with like-minded partners, explains:
Many businesses have dozens of partners, so it can be hard, and expensive, for them to work out what’s going on in their supply chain and who their best partners are. Most are SMBs and it’s not a high-margin sector so they don’t have huge resources to throw at the issue. What it boils down to is ensuring you work with the right people, so we wanted to build a tool that made it simpler for them to make sustainable supply chain decisions.
The firm’s platform attempts to do this by using algorithms to understand what each company does, where it fits into the wider agri-food supply chain, how sustainable its operations are and what challenges it may be facing. It then creates the equivalent of a “dating profile”, says Yates, before finding matches between compatible organizations.
About 200 customers, including Leon Restaurants, Veolia Waste Management and packaging company Notpla, have signed up to the service since Greener launched a minimum viable produce in June last year to test the technology. Just over half have been formally vetted to date. While companies looking for sustainable services do not currently need to be accredited, service providers themselves do.
Greener, which employs just four full-time staff, is currently undertaking a seed funding round to help the tool move to “scale-ready production” by the fourth quarter of this year. The aim is to focus activities initially on the UK and Europe and the idea is to charge customers commission of between 5-7% - although the figure has yet to be finalized - of the value of any transactions undertaken with new-found partners.
Over time, a further goal is to track and monitor each customer’s sustainability performance for improvements and to assign scores based on that performance. The company also plans to undertake regular decision-making analyses to understand which products and services are most popular and how customers are using them.
Reducing waste using AI-based insect farms
Another firm that is attempting to tackle the food sustainability issue from more of a waste management perspective is Better Origin. To this end, it currently runs and manages four UK-based “insect farms” using its own in-house developed AI-based software to help produce sustainable chicken feed.
Two of the insect farms are operated on behalf of supermarket chain Morrisons at poultry farms in Yorkshire and Durham, although the aim is to increase this number to 10 over time. The others in Wales and Cambridgeshire are trial sites for individual poultry farmers.
Each insect farm of black soldier fly larvae is housed in a shipping container. In the case of Morrisons, the larvae, which live in hundreds of trays within the container, are nourished daily using food waste provided by the supermarket. Once they have reached five times their original body mass, they are then fed to the chickens.
The AI software, which is controlled remotely via a mobile device, inspects and manages the larvae feeding process without any human intervention taking place beyond regular inspection and maintenance. It also monitors how much the larvae have consumed, growth rates, disease risk, abnormalities and potential yields.
The benefits of insect protein
Larvae protein now replaces up to 10% of the chickens’ usual soya feed, the rest of which will be substituted over time with locally-grown beans and legumes. This approach offers a number of benefits, believes Fortis Fotiadis, the company’s CEO and Founder:
By regularly adding natural feed to their diet, hens are healthier, happier and less stressed, so they live longer, their immune systems are more resilient and their eggs are more disease-resistant. Hens by design forage all day looking for insect larvae, so they’re able to act more naturally, which reduces stress. Eating live insects also improves their gut microbiome, which leads to a better feed conversion ratio.
Better Origin is currently speaking to other supermarkets, food producers, waste management companies and pet food companies about signing up to the scheme. The idea is that customers lease the system for a monthly fee based on usage, which also includes a service level agreement.
Over time though, the company also sees potential beyond the poultry market in areas, such as aquaculture as well as providing food for both humans and pigs. Its aim is to expand initially into Europe, followed by the US, using a franchise model. This would see it still owning its own brand, AI software, the insect genetics, quality control and assurance, while third parties would handle the manual sourcing of the food waste. Fotiadis says:
The market is potentially massive as if you think about it, insect protein is both more sustainable and readily available.
The issue of food sustainability is one of the key issues of our times but tech, if used with a sprinkling or two of innovation, could well have an important role to play in at least improving the situation.