At the start of this year, the world’s biggest electronics and innovation show, CES, took on a distinctly green edge. The world has become increasingly aware of climate change, sustainability, and humanity’s impact on the planet. Now, tech startups have major opportunities to stand up and find solutions, and this was a major theme at CES.
Addressing the global challenge of food waste has attracted a flood of startups. Part of what inspires these entrepreneurs is, of course, a desire to address a massive global problem. Almost one-third of all food is wasted, which, in addition to being offensive from a wastage point of view, makes food waste one of the most significant causes of excess carbon emissions. Beyond that, however, addressing food waste is, simply, good business. Food waste costs $2.6 trillion annually. That’s a big opportunity for entrepreneurs that have answers.
And so we saw some truly fascinating innovations on display at CES. One startup showcased scanning technology that, supported by AI, could better determine whether avocados were ripe or not. This technology can potentially help improve efficiency and minimise wastage in supply chains where the ripeness windows for edible products are short.
Another startup has developed technology that scans waste dumped into commercial kitchen trash. The data collected by this can be provided back to the restaurant to improve disposal patterns. It will save the restaurant money on ingredients and even water use. It will also help the environment.
Yet another startup is manufacturing a “hyper-fast” composting system, to help households manage their own waste at home.
CES is a hotbed of bleeding-edge technology that may or may not scale to mainstream adoption, but there are many other things being done to combat food waste now.
Escavox, for example, is a reasonably mature company at this point. It specialises in installing IoT devices in logistics fleets to help companies track the entire food supply chain. This provides ongoing feedback on inefficiencies and processes that result in food having a “bad experience,” and potentially needing to be binned.
Furthermore, where there’s data, there’s potential for AI. AI is the hottest technology concept of the moment in all sectors and industries. In food supply, data scientists are looking for ways to improve the efficiency of supply chains.
For example, AI can drive better demand forecasting and enable dynamic produce pricing. These are both ways that can help accurately predict the supply and demand dynamic, and ensure that everyone has a full belly while the supermarkets are left with nothing to throw out.
AI comes with some risks, however. There is every chance that supermarkets and produce stores will simply leverage AI to enhance screening efforts. This means that more food may grade lowly based on aesthetic reasons – for example, the “fugly” produce that we sell – and is left with farmer to dispose of if they can’t sell via an alternate means. Australia already has an issue where as much as 25 per cent of produce doesn’t leave the farm. So, it will be important to make sure that AI is specifically used to improve sustainability outcomes.
One final area of research heavily leverages technology to improve food efficiency. Scientists and researchers are finding fascinating ways to turn ingredients otherwise unfit for human consumption into foodstuffs. For example, an Israeli startup, Mush Foods, is taking side streams from coffee, beer, soy and corn production to turn into a protein. Meanwhile, Estonia’s ÄIO recently successfully raised €1 million in venture funding. Its product? Taking wood and agricultural industry by-products, such as sawdust, and turning them into alternative oils and fats.
These solutions offer a way to recycle otherwise wasted food products, and feed an ever-growing population. The world needs to increase food production by 60 per cent by 2050 to meet the population’s food needs. Wasting 30 per cent of that would be catastrophic. As a society we need to tackle this problem from multiple angles – we need to significantly improve supply chain efficiencies, more accurately manage supply and demand at the point of consumption, and find innovative ways to make sure nothing ends up being wasted.