In the future, food could be good for you and the planet.
In the meantime, one third of food ends gets wasted, creating environmental and economic issues that need to be resolved.
We take a closer look at this pervasive issue and how some companies, including eatCultured, are looking to change that.
Why Is Food Waste A Problem?
Food waste is a challenge for three key reasons:
1. Globally, one third of all food produced is wasted, which would be enough to feed 3 billion people according to a study by the United Nations in 2011. This is especially problematic at a time when so many people in the world are suffering from starvation or malnutrition.
2. Every year in the United States alone, 40% of our food goes to waste (including 35% of Thanksgiving turkey). That accounts for $166 billion's worth of food based on 2008 retail values, a figure which has since grown steadily.
This waste represents an economic loss that could otherwise support sound jobs for farmers and producers as much as retailers.
3. Finally, methane released by decomposing food waste is one of the most potent greenhouse gases responsible for climate change. Cutting this source of emissions would help countries meet their climate commitments to future generations under The Paris Agreement.
Where Does Food Waste Come From?
On average, much more food is wasted in industrialized nations than developing ones. The average European or North American, for example, wastes 95-115kg of food each year compared to only 6-11kg in some parts of Africa and Asia.
Food waste occurs at every stage of the food chain, though the biggest source of losses vary from country to country.
Farms, Distributors & Manufacturers
In industrialized nations, much food is wasted early in the food chain between farms and suppliers.
In the United States, for example, 23% of food gets discarded at this stage. In addition a study by the Grocery Manufacturers Association in 2011 estimated food manufacturing generated 44.3 billion pounds of food waste, 73% of which ended up as animal feed.
Much of why this happens is down to retail agreements or even laws that penalize farmers for imperfect produce. This in turn incentivizes farms and distributors to discard food before it even reaches consumers.
The result is not only large quantities of food waste but huge energy, chemical and up to 25% of freshwater wastage too!
Similarly while the average piece of food travels 1,500 miles in the United States before it reaches your plate, the likelihood of it getting damaged en route increases too. This creates a huge source of waste that could be eliminated if consumers and retailers chose to buy local, fresh produce, not to mention benefits to the local economy too.
To address these issues, a new breed of startups like Food Cowboy are aiming to divert food waste at this stage of the food chain to the needy and hungry. Similarly startups like Imperfect Produce divert food that's been rejected by producers and retailers and sell it to consumers at a steep discount.
Retailers, from independent grocery stores to supermarket chains, have recently been in the spotlight for sales practices that generate huge volumes of food waste.
From overstocking shelves for display purposes, deceptive "sell by dates" that encourage consumers to discard food while still fresh or opting for "cosmetic perfection" with fresh produce, these operating principles generate waste at every turn.
The good news is some retailers are changing. In the United States, Wal-Mart, Mom's Organic Market, Wegman's and West Coast chain Raley's, among others, launched programs to sell so-called "ugly" produce at a discount.
However there's still a long way to go for this kind of behavior to be pervasive across the retail industry.
Similarly, the success of these types of project is ultimately down to our attitudes as consumers as much as a willingness by retailers to change.
Commercial Food Waste
Commercial kitchens are one of the leading sources of food waste. In New York City, for example, these kitchens accounted for a half million tons of food waste in 2013. Much of this waste stems from either cooking too much, or customers only eating half of what they order.
With many kitchens legally unable to donate their food, even to those who would otherwise go hungry, change in this area needs to be underpinned by policy changes.
Similarly offering better recycling options (like composting) in cities can support the local foodshed by diverting food waste and recycling it back into nutrients for more crops!
Combined with the rise of urban farms, much commercial food waste could become a valuable local business in itself.
Consumers, whose carbon footprint is eight times as big as farms when it comes to food waste, have a large role to play in solving the issue. That means stopping food waste starts with you.
A leading cause of food waste is consumers' propensity to throw away unused food or based on confusion over freshness dates designed to be more advisory than expiry.
Another source of waste is simply ordering too much food that doesn't get eaten.
This is an especially big problem in big cities, where a growing number of food delivery services compounded by increasingly compact home kitchen spaces make it easier to order meals online than cook them.
A batch of enterprising startups are also exploring ways to get this food into needy people's hands instead, however legal challenges to these kinds of systems make changing the status quo an economic uphill struggle, leading to high failure rates for businesses in this field.
Solving Food Waste
The problem of food waste is being addressed in a number of different ways but many of the solutions are designed to attach an economic value to it.
Eating and Drinking Food Waste
Much of the food that gets thrown away is still edible and contains valuable nutrition. In order to capture this nutrition before it goes to landfill, a collection of startups are growing innovative waste management solutions:
eatCultured and its parent company, custom fermentation studio Afineur, are working on a new edible, nutritious plant-based protein created by upcycling food waste using natural fermentation. The new protein, produced using recovered spent grain from the brewing industry, which accounts for billions of tons of food waste each year, recovers essential nutrients in a storable form thanks to the power of natural microbes.
At the other end of the scale, UK brewing company Toast has quickly risen to prominence for using moldy bread to brew craft lager. Stale bread and the discarded ends of loaves, which account for a million tons of waste each year in the UK alone, provides the starter and cultures from which a series of tasty ales are brewed. Toast is one of a number of craft brewing outfits, including Brooklyn Brewery, turning bread waste into the perfect partner for a bevy of bountiful brews.
Washington D.C. based Misfit Juicery is turning food waste salvaged from farmers, producers and retailers for not being cosmetically perfect back into tasty fresh juices. San Francisco based Ugly Juice are using these same principles to produce a range of cold-pressed juices on the West Coast. Together, the future of food waste (and juices) tastes better than today.
These companies are one of a growing number of startups working with food waste.
At the same time, many restaurants and leading chefs such as Dan Barber, through his wastED program in New York and London, are spearheading the use of recovered foods. By curating menus using only food scraps and waste, the goal is to raise awareness in the press and with consumers for the potential to reduce waste while cooking delicious food.
Similarly the nose-to-tail movement in meat-centric dining circles, where every part of the animal is used rather than only select prime cuts of meat then wasting the rest, plays a role in reducing food waste too.
Non-profit anti-food waste advocacy group ReFED is a collaboration between private enterprise and local non-profit groups in the United States driving awareness for food waste. The group's Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste provides solutions applicable at a national and local level.
Similarly international science collaborations such as Project Drawdown, which aims to reduce climate change through 80 targeted solutions, are helping to raise awareness for the role food waste plays in shaping a more sustainable future.
As we've already identified above, consumers have a large role to play in reducing food waste. One easy way to do this is to buy produce that's local, reducing the distance food has to travel to reach your plate and waste that occurs along the way.
In countries with a longer tradition of outdoor food markets, supporting small producers is now both an environmental and cultural act.
In the United States, organizations such as the National Farmers Market Association represent a network of markets managed by local non-profit groups. At a local level, groups such as the NYC Greenmarket Farmers Markets manage a network of over 50 local markets bringing fresh produce from the local foodshed to the city's 8 million residents.
Fueling Local (Transportation)
In London, United Kingdom, coffee grounds are now being used to power the city's iconic red buses. By fermenting the grounds and mixing them with diesel to create a new biofuel, the city of 8 million is looking to reduce reliance on cars through public transportation but also tackle food waste and climate change with a new fuel solution.
In other cities around the world, city-led compositing programs encourage local residents to recycle their food scraps into organic compost that can help grow more crops.
While other solutions dedicated to tackling the issue of food waste may exist, there's still room for plenty more!
The future of food waste relies on concerted work at each step in the food chain and beyond to change not only industry practices but consumer behavior too. We look forward to being part of that solution.