A mushrooming global food crisis makes it ever more urgent to tackle food waste head-on. COVID-related supply chain disruptions and inflation have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, which has triggered protectionist policies such as nationalistic food hoarding and skyrocketing food, energy, and fertilizer costs. Nearly 250 million people are on the brink of famine, with many hundreds of millions more likely to fall into poverty if the war drags on. As fears of a global recession and stagflation rise, it is a particularly apt time to redouble efforts to halve food waste by 2030.
While hundreds of millions of people go hungry, a third of the world’s food is wasted. As noted by Drawdown, uneaten food squanders myriad resources (e.g., seeds, water, energy, land, fertilizer, labor, and financial capital) and accounts for roughly 8% of global and 4% of U.S. GHG emissions. In lower-income countries, food loss is primarily unintended and structural in nature (e.g., bad roads, lack of refrigeration or storage facilities, poor equipment and packaging, and challenging combinations of heat and humidity). Wastage occurs early in the supply chain on farms or during storage or distribution. By contrast, in higher-income countries, “willful food waste dominates farther along the supply chain” as retailers and consumers “spurn imperfect foods, overestimate how much to eat, toss out food that has not gone bad, or forget about food in the back of the fridge.” Indeed, food waste is the most common material landfilled in the United States.
Although the U.S. is confronting substantial inflation and tepid growth, its food and energy situation is markedly better than that of most other countries. Our nation takes its abundance for granted, inexcusably wasting 35% of its food and leaving 11% of its citizens food insecure. As households, farms, and businesses grapple with inflation, slow growth, and climate change, prudent policies, public-private partnerships, and innovation can drastically curb food waste, thereby reducing GHG emissions, resource and financial expenditures, and food insecurity.
The EPA's recent report underscores that halving food loss and waste, as the U.S. pledged to achieve by 2030, can meaningfully lower our food system’s environmental footprint. The EPA shares three central insights:
The EPA breaks down the cradle-to-consumer food supply chain to four stages: (1) primary production (i.e., farming and harvesting); (2) distribution and processing; (3) retail; and (4) consumption. Primary production contributes the highest percentage of GHG emissions, while consumption (in households and restaurants) is responsible for 50% of total food waste. Fruits and vegetables are the most commonly wasted foods, followed by dairy and eggs.
The most thoughtful and data-driven study I’ve seen on cutting food waste is ReFED's Roadmap to 2030, a comprehensive blueprint for halving food waste through policy, financing, innovation, and engagement. ReFED notes that the $408 billion value of surplus food in 2019 consisted of: (1) $285 billion of food waste; (2) $113 billion of recycled food; and (3) $10 billion of donated food. While consumers shouldered the greatest financial cost for uneaten food, the food industry lost $250 billion.
Food waste spans the entire supply chain, with the bulk occurring in homes and consumer-facing businesses and a sizable 21% hitting farms.
ReFED further breaks down the many complex causes of upstream and downstream food waste.
ReFED identifies seven key action areas to prevent, rescue, and recycle food waste: (1) optimize the harvest; (2) enhance product distribution; (3) refine product management; (4) maximize product utilization; (5) reshape consumer environments; (6) strengthen food rescue; and (7) recycle anything remaining. ReFED emphasizes prevention-related action areas because they generally have the greatest financial and environmental impact compared to the required investment, yet have received less attention than rescue and recycling.
Powered by ReFED’s data-driven Insights Engine, the Roadmap to 2030 ranks solutions based on: (1) net financial benefit; (2) diverted food waste tons; and (3) avoided GHG emissions. This granularity can help food businesses, entrepreneurs, and governments decide where to focus their attention. One of the most impactful solutions overlapping all three categories is reduced portion sizes, which could lead to a $9B net financial benefit, 2.4M food waste tons diverted, and 11.5M tons of GHG emissions avoided. Meal kits and consumer education campaigns also offer powerful opportunities to substantially cut costs and emissions, though it is important to consider ways to diminish meal kits' packaging. Another intriguing solution is centralized composting because it generates significant environmental benefits (by reducing methane emissions and creating organic fertilizers). However, because its net financial benefit pales in comparison to that of other solutions, governmental policies are necessary to scale composting.
ReFED and Closed Loop Partners, an excellent investment firm focused on the circular economy, recently announced a $100M funding platform to scale food waste solutions. Emphasizing catalytic funding, the platform is designed to provide private and philanthropic financing and support for organizations, municipalities, and innovators.
As stressed by ReFED, policy and regulation are necessary to create proper incentives, accelerate adoption of early-stage technologies, and propel meaningful changes unaddressed by market forces. For example, a federal policy to standardize date labeling is an easy way to prevent customers from tossing out perfectly safe and edible food due to misleading and inconsistently applied labels (e.g., “use by,” “best by,” or “sell by”). In the United Kingdom, WRAP has worked with the government to modify regulations so that “best before date” labels are not applied to low-risk products like pasta or rice.
As chronicled in this Civil Eats article, strong national initiatives can nudge households to appreciably cut food waste. Between 2007 and 2018, the United Kingdom reduced its total household food waste by 18% through the industry-focused Courtauld Commitment 2030 and a consumer education campaign called Love Food Hate Waste. This campaign provides numerous resources such as an A to Z guide for optimal food storage and a portion calculator to help people save costs and reduce waste.
In 2016, France passed a law mandating that supermarkets above ~4,500 square feet work with food assistance organizations to donate unsold products to charities or animal feed or composting companies. Donations to food banks have increased 20%, and supermarkets are saving costs on food waste management and benefiting from tax breaks. Denmark is also a leader in food waste reduction, with the government helping households sort food waste ultimately used at manure-based biogas plants.
Major U.S. states and cities such as San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston demonstrate the benefits of organic waste regulations and programs. In addition to outreach and education, carrots (e.g., tax incentives and cost savings) and sticks (e.g., laws and fines) are necessary to slash food waste. In 2009, San Francisco enacted a Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, which has accelerated the role of centralized composting. California has a new food waste recycling law obligating all residents and businesses to divert organic material from the landfill. California aims to reduce landfilled organic material by 75% in 2025, which would be the equivalent of taking 3 million cars off the road for a year. Since October 2014, Massachusetts has banned businesses producing at least one ton of organic waste from disposal. Seattle, which outlawed food waste from the garbage in 2015, has a “pay-as-you-throw” initiative lowering residents’ service costs as they divert more food waste and thus throw away less garbage.
The fascinating Gastropod podcast entitled Black Gold: The Future of Food . . . We Throw Away highlights compelling companies catalyzed by governmental policies. American Organics is an industrial composting company that uses sophisticated technology to create optimal composting conditions through positive aeration, automatic irrigation, advanced temperature control, and a biofilter layer. Centralized composting is extremely complex and capital-intensive, and companies like American Organics can thrive because governmental policy is driving demand. In Boston, Waste Management is pioneering a new municipal infrastructure system combining food waste and sewage. Waste Management has a Centralized Organic Recycling (CORe) facility that takes food waste and extracts contaminants to create a bioslurry for digestion at regional wastewater treatment plants. The liquid bioslurry is ultimately transported in a tanker to an anaerobic digester, where microbes are used to produce methane, which directly powers the grid. Another valuable by-product of Waste Management’s process is fertilizer. Wastewater treatment is incredibly energy-intensive, accounting for 1% of all U.S. energy use. Waste Management believes that its CORe facilities generate huge climate savings because they are fueled by food scraps instead of fossil fuels. Without the Massachusetts disposal ban, companies like Waste Management would not have a business model that could support its innovative vision. (It’s worth noting concerns about sewage sludge converted into fertilizer and vital to consider the unintended harm associated with any food waste solution.)
Entrepreneurs are finding creative ways to tackle food waste across the supply chain. Here are a few exciting companies in the space.
The FRESHGLOW Co. produces FreshPaper sheets, which are infused with powerful organic botanicals that keep fruits and vegetables fresh 2-4x longer. I learned about the incredible story behind this company in an interview with founder Kavita Shukla on Dr. Hyman’s podcast. Before visiting her grandmother in India as a kid, Kavita’s mother warned her not to drink the tap water. When she drank a cup, her grandmother made her a spiced tea and she never became ill. When she returned to America, she began running “crazy experiments” with spices in her garage. After noticing moldy fuzz on the bottom of strawberries sold at the grocery store, Kavita dipped her strawberries in the spices, which kept them fresher due to antifungal and antibacterial reactions. Kavita created FreshPaper by applying spices to recyclable sheets made with biodegradable, recyclable, and compostable materials. Kavita wished to develop a simple low-tech solution that could help people in the developing world. As a kid, she went to craft stores and focused on paper products because they are easy to source, low cost, and don’t require preservatives. What started at a local farmers' market has grown into a global business serving farmers across the world, multinationals like Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, and food banks.
AgriProtein is a fascinating company using black soldier flies to transform organic food waste into sustainable protein feed for fish, poultry, and other industries. South African founder Jason Drew came up with the solution while walking past a food waste dump swarming with flies. In a process AgriProtein calls “nutrient recycling,” fly larvae feed on organic waste and convert it into high-quality proteins. AgriProtein creates three valuable products: (1) MagMeal, a 55% protein organic animal feed; (2) MagOil, an omega-rich health supplement for animals that can alternatively be used as a biofuel; and (3) MagSoil, a nutrient-rich compost that can be used to regenerate soils.
Apeel “mimics nature to increase produce’s shelf life by using the evolved defenses of the plant kingdom.” Apeel uses the same molecular building blocks from the peels, seeds, and pulp of all fruits and vegetables to create an extra invisible peel to slow water loss and oxidation. Apeel is prepared as a powder and diluted with water prior to application by a global network of suppliers. The product may be applied by spray, dip, or brush on methods. As the Ellen MacArthur Foundation points out, Apeel designs out: (1) food waste by preventing produce from prematurely rotting; (2) plastic waste because no packaging is necessary; and (3) energy and resource waste. Covering one avocado with Apeel saves 23 liters of water and enough energy to charge a smartphone 9 times.
HomeBiogas develops anaerobic digesters converting food and biological waste into clean gas and bio-fertilizer. Households, farms, and small businesses deposit organic waste (e.g., food scraps and animal manure) into the digester, and methanogenic bacteria convert the waste into biogas. (As a one-time activation, 100 liters of fresh manure are added to get bacteria into the digester.) The biogas is collected, filtered, and stored in a safe and patented gas storage bag, and can be delivered to a specially designed biogas stovetop for cooking. The digester also produces an organic liquid bio-fertilizer for crops. HomeBiogas is set to release an industrial system for kitchens at public institutes, companies, hotels, restaurants, and food complexes. The on-site solution will use anaerobic digesters to transform up to 1 ton of organic waste per day into clean energy in the form of biogas used for heating water. This system will save businesses in waste management and energy costs and significantly reduce pollution.
Vanguard Renewables develops organics-to-renewable energy projects, including an interesting anaerobic digestion project at Bar-Way Farm, a fourth-generation dairy farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts. Vanguard Renewables pays farmers a fee to build anaerobic digesters on their land and provides them with free electricity generated by the digesters. Bar-Way Farm takes in about 100 tons of waste each day from 17 Whole Foods stores, a local creamery, a local brewery, and a juice plant. Whole Foods notes that it is cheaper to send its food waste to Bar-Way Farm than to the landfill. The Bar-Way Farm’s 660,000-gallon anaerobic digester tank combines more than 9,000 tons of manure and 36,500 tons of food waste annually and converts it into renewable energy, thereby offsetting more than 2 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions annually. After completely powering the Bar-Way Farm, the digester produces enough energy for 1,500 homes. In addition to savings of $100,000 per year, Bar-Way Farm can use a liquid by-product as a valuable fertilizer.
Whereas the EU has approximately 17,500 anaerobic digestion plants, in the U.S. there are less than 350 plants that process collected organic wastes or agricultural residuals. Vanguard Renewables CEO is inspired by Europe and believes state laws and grants like those advanced in Massachusetts and California can spur anaerobic digestion across the country.
Powered by artificial intelligence, Winnow helps commercial kitchens reduce food waste. Using cameras pointed at trash bins, Winnow Vision relies on machine learning to identify, measure, and track food waste. CEO Peter Krebs notes that kitchens have traditionally tackled food waste by putting pen to paper and making educated guesses about what was wasted and why. However, few kitchens are able to accurately measure food waste. Winnow “empowers chefs to make data-driven decisions because their kitchens automatically register food waste without human interaction.” Focusing on scale, Winnow is serving large kitchens at multinationals (e.g., IKEA and Compass Group), hotels, casinos, and cruise ships. As Krebs notes, “Kitchens that use Winnow tend to see between a 40 to 70 percent reduction in waste within 6 to 12 months of using the system. This equates to driving food cost savings between 2 to 8 percent, improving margins whilst doing the right thing. Chefs using Winnow are also saving over $42 million in reduced food purchasing costs. This is equal to 36 million meals and a total of 61,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year.”
The above companies demonstrate that ingenious food waste solutions can save considerable financial and environmental costs and produce clean energy and valuable organic by-products. A combination of innovation, forward-looking legislation, education, and policy initiatives can seriously dent U.S. food waste. Given COVID, the war in Ukraine, and an economic slowdown, it is critical for governmental and business leaders to shine a spotlight on the magnitude of food waste and the massive opportunity it presents.