Can AI help us address food insecurity and food waste?

(© Udra11 – Shutterstock)

According to the World Economic Forum:

  • We each throw out 74kg (163 lbs) of food waste per person per year.
  • UN Sustainable Development Goals aim for 50% less food waste by 2030.
  • AI software has been shown to reduce supermarket food waste by a third. (in some cases)
  • Tech startup Wasteless is using AI to cut down on 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 appears to be fresh: Ripe fruit and vegetables at their prime, daisy products with a “sell by date” within the period we’d expect to consume them, the same with meat and fish. Or we buy frozen food and stick it in the freezer until someday we decide that maybe it’s been there too long. It looked perfect in the supermarket. The ripe fruit or vegetables, the prime meat, the nutritious dairy products – all of this ends up in the trash and eventually in the landfill, which is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases as it decomposes.

At the same time, two billion people around the world suffer from malnutrition. 60% more food is needed to feed the global population by 2050. Can an AI-enabled agricultural industry meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s 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 told us to clean our plates because people were starving in various far-flung locales. Smart alecs would say, “How is what I’m not eating here going to feed someone there?” But it wasn’t funny. We didn’t clean our plates, because of the overconsumption of food we could afford.

How much food is wasted in America? The world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food every year. The United States discards more food than any other country in the world: nearly 40 million tons — 80 billion pounds every year. That’s estimated to be 30-40 percent of the entire US food supply, equating to 219 pounds of waste per person. That’s like every person in America throwing more than 650 average-sized apples right into the garbage — or rather right into landfills, as most discarded food ends up there. Food is the single most significant component taking up space inside US landfills, making up 22 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW).

More than 80 percent of Americans discard perfectly good food because they misunderstand the expiration 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 fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption. Part of the problem is that most farms are small family farms, operating almost half of US farmland while generating 21% of production.

Midsize and large-scale family farms account for about 66% of production, and non-family farms represent the remaining 2.1% of farms and 12% of production. The current AI implementations for farming are too capital-extensive, and can’t provide economies of scale.

Reducing retail food waste with AI – the Wasteless example

“Markdown optimization” is tricky. It’s the technique of discounting food items nearing the end of their shelf life. Wasteless, an artificial intelligence startup gives retailers dynamic rather than fixed pricing for perishable food products. Oded Omer, the co-founder, says it doesn’t make sense to pay the same price for cheese that will expire in two or six days. Wasteless incentivizes consumers to purchase the item the closer they get to their “best before date,” instead of the store throwing them in the trash.

He argues that customers can be incentivized by reducing prices the closer a product gets to its “best-before” date.

The software integrates easily. Because prices are no longer stickers on items, they are encoded onto the entire inventory to purchase them. The WEF forum reported in “How AI can reduce supermarket food waste” that a Spanish retailer ran a pilot with Wasteless, which reported almost a third less (32.7%) overall waste. Wasteless says its machine learning algorithms are continuously developing and are on track to hit an 80% reduction in food waste. That, of course, means higher revenues.

Some suggestions for reducing food waste

1. Source Reduction

This is pretty simple. Force yourself to get into the habit of buying less and only what you need. You can reduce waste by not creating it in the first place. Overbuying will be a hard habit to break. But in the meantime, there are other options.

2. Feed Hungry People

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

3. Feed Animals

Humans aren’t the only ones who need to be fed — our animals need sustenance too. Those food scraps we toss after dinner each night — that will surely end up in a landfill — can be saved for feeding farm animals, diverting more food waste from being needlessly thrown out.

4. Industrial Uses

Did you know that some of the food you toss can be used to create biofuel and bio-products that could power your car? The earth has provided alternative energy in the form of sun and wind. Why shouldn’t our food be yet another way to source power?

5. Composting

Near the bottom of the Food Waste Recovery Hierarchy is something every person can do: composting their food waste. Composting not only prevents your food waste from entering a landfill (and creating even more greenhouse gases) but also improves soil and water quality which in turn helps future crops grow.

6. Landfill/Incineration

This is the bottom of the Food Waste Hierarchy — and the final resort to the waste we produce. Avoiding this tier starts with each one of us by preventing waste at the top of the tier — right where it’s sourced and where we can make different decisions about how much we take, buy and create.

My take

Some things are going to be hard to fix. Take Trader Joe’s. Most of their products are packaged. If you come to buy a lemon or an apple or an heirloom tomato, you’re out of luck because you end up with half a dozen in the cart. Another problem is leftovers. I have a big family, so we always seem to overcook, then the leftovers go into one of the refrigerators where they are never consumed. Leftovers are just deferred waste.

This is a huge problem. In a pending article, I’ll cover the burgeoning industry of AI for agriculture. Developments abound there, but they’re pricey.

.