Can AI help us address food insecurity and food waste?

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According to the World Economic Forum:

  • We each throw away 74 kg (163 pounds) of food waste per person per year.
  • The goal of the UN Sustainable Development Goals is to reduce the amount of food waste by 50% by 2030.
  • AI software has been shown to reduce supermarket food waste by a third. (in some cases)
  • Tech startup Wasteless uses AI to reduce food waste.
  • Wasteless is a member of The Circulars Accelerator Cohort 2021 on UpLink.

Everyone throws away perfectly good food. We buy it at the market and it seems to be fresh: ripe fruits and vegetables at their best, daisies with a “sell by” date, just like meat and fish. Or we buy frozen food and put it in the freezer until we decide that maybe it has been there too long. It looked perfect in the supermarket. Ready fruit or vegetables, prime meats, nutritious dairy products all end up in the trash and eventually landfill, where as they decompose, they are a major contributor to greenhouse gases.

At the same time, two billion people worldwide suffer from malnutrition. To feed the world’s population by 2050, 60% more food is needed. Can an AI-powered agriculture industry meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of global water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These are two different problems – food waste and global hunger.

When I was a kid, it was a joke that our parents would make us clean our plates because people were starving in various far away places. The wise alecks would say, “How will what I don’t eat here feed someone over there?” But it wasn’t funny. We didn’t clean our plates because we ate more than we could afford.

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How much food is wasted in America? The world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food every year. The United States throws away more food than any other country in the world: nearly 40 million tons, or 80 billion pounds, each year. This is an estimated 30-40 percent of the entire US food supply, which equates to 219 pounds of waste per person. That’s like every person in America tossing more than 650 medium-sized apples straight into the trash—or rather, straight into landfills, because that’s where most of the food thrown away ends up. Food is the single most significant component that takes up space in US landfills, accounting for 22 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW).

More than 80 percent of Americans throw away perfectly good food because they misunderstand the expiration date label. Sources of waste: homes 43%, restaurants/grocery stores 40%, farms 16%, manufacturers 2%.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has lagged behind other sectors in technology adoption. Part of the problem is that most farms are small family farms that manage nearly half of the U.S. farmland while producing 21% of the crop.

Medium and large family farms account for about 66% of production, and non-family farms account for the remaining 2.1% of farms and 12% of production. Current AI implementations in agriculture are too capital intensive and cannot deliver economies of scale.

Reducing retail food waste with AI – a zero-waste example

“Optimizing marks” is complicated. This is a technique to discount food items that are nearing their expiration date. A no-nonsense AI startup provides retailers with dynamic, rather than fixed, prices for perishable food products. Oded Omer, co-founder, says it doesn’t make sense to pay the same price for cheese that will expire in two or six days. Non-waste encourages consumers to purchase an item closer to the “best before” date, rather than the store throwing it away.

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He argues that customers can be incentivized by lowering prices closer to the product’s “best before” date.

The software is easy to integrate. Since prices are no longer stickers on items, they are coded throughout the inventory for purchase. At the WEF forum, the report “How AI can reduce supermarket food waste” reported that a Spanish retailer conducted a “Wasteless” pilot project that reported almost a third less (32.7%) total waste. Wasteless says its machine learning algorithms are constantly evolving and on track to reduce food waste by 80%. This, of course, means more revenue.

Some suggestions for reducing food waste

1. Source reduction

It’s quite simple. Force yourself to buy less and only what you need. You can reduce waste by not creating it in the first place. Overbuying will be a difficult habit to break. But in the meantime, there are other options.

2. Feed the hungry people

Much of the food we throw away is perfectly edible. This is unacceptable, as 50 million people are expected to suffer from food insecurity in 2022 alone. Food banks and shelters across the country would appreciate the food that many Americans throw away.

3. Food animals

Humans aren’t the only ones who need to be fed—our animals need food too. The food scraps that we throw away every night after dinner, which are bound to end up in landfill, can be saved to feed farm animals, preventing more food waste from being thrown away.

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4. Industrial use

Did you know that some of the food you throw away can be used to make biofuels and bioproducts that could power your car? The earth has provided alternative energy in the form of sun and wind. Why can’t our food be another way to get energy?

5. Composting

At the bottom of the food waste recycling hierarchy is something everyone can do: food waste composting. Composting not only keeps food waste out of the landfill (and creates even more greenhouse gases), but also improves soil and water quality, which in turn helps grow future crops.

6. Landfill/incineration

It is the bottom of the food waste hierarchy and the last resort for the waste we create. Avoiding this level starts with each of us, eliminating waste at the top of the level – right where it comes from and where we can make different decisions about how much we take, buy and create.

My assumption

Some things will be hard to fix. Take Trader Joe’s. Most of their products are packaged. If you’re coming in to buy a lemon, apple or heirloom tomato, you’re out of luck because there’s half a dozen in the cart. Leftovers are another problem. I have a large family, so we always seem to overcook, then the leftovers end up in one of the fridges where they never get consumed. Leftovers are just discarded waste.

This is a huge problem. In a sneak peek article, I’ll cover the burgeoning field of AI in agriculture. There are a lot of developments out there, but they are expensive.

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