Can AI help us fight food insecurity and food waste?

Can AI help us fight food insecurity and food waste?

(© Udra11 – Shutterstock)

According to the World Economic Forum:

  • We each throw away 74 kg (163 lb) of food waste per person per year.
  • The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals aim to reduce 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 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” in the period when we expect to consume them, the same for meat and fish. Or we buy frozen foods and put them in the freezer until one day we decide they may have been there too long. It looked perfect in the supermarket. Ripe fruits or vegetables, premium meat, nutritious dairy products – it all ends up in the trash and eventually landfill, contributing significantly to greenhouse gases as it breaks down.

At the same time, two billion people in the world suffer from malnutrition. 60% more food is needed to feed the world’s population by 2050. 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 issues: food waste and world hunger.

When I was a kid, it was a joke that our parents would tell us to clean our plates because people were starving in various remote places. Smart alecs would say, “How is what I’m not eating here going to feed someone over 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 throws away more food than any other country in the world: nearly 40 million tons, or 80 billion pounds, every year. This is estimated to be 30-40% of the entire US food supply, which equates to 219 pounds of waste per person. It’s like every person in America throws over 650 average-sized apples straight into the trash – or rather straight into landfills, because most of the food that’s thrown away ends up there. Food is the largest component taking up space in US landfills, accounting for 22% of municipal solid waste (MSW).

More than 80% of Americans throw away perfectly good food because they misunderstand the expiration label. Sources of waste: homes 43%, restaurants/groceries 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 terms of technology adoption. Part of the problem is that most farms are small family farms, working nearly half of America’s farmland while generating 21% of production.

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 implementations of AI for agriculture are too capital intensive and cannot provide economies of scale.

Reducing retail food waste with AI – the example of Wasteless

“Markdown optimization” is tricky. It is the technique of reducing food products that are approaching the end of their shelf life. Wasteless, an artificial intelligence startup, offers retailers dynamic rather than fixed prices 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 encourages consumers to purchase the item as it nears its “best before” date, instead of the store throwing it away.

He argues that customers can be incentivized by lowering prices as a product approaches its expiration date.

The software integrates easily. Because prices are no longer stickers on items, they are encoded across the entire inventory for purchase. The WEF forum reported in “How AI can reduce food waste in supermarkets” that a Spanish retailer conducted a pilot project with Wasteless, which reported almost a third less (32.7%) of global waste. Wasteless claims that its machine learning algorithms are continually developing and are on track to achieve an 80% reduction in food waste. This, of course, means higher incomes.

Some suggestions to reduce food waste

1. Reduction at source

It’s quite 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 away is perfectly edible. This is unacceptable, with 50 million people projected to be food insecure in 2022 alone. Food banks and shelters across the country would happily welcome the food that many Americans throw away.

3. Feed the animals

Humans aren’t the only ones who need food, our animals need food too. Those food scraps that we throw away every night after dinner – which will surely end up in a landfill – can be saved to feed farm animals, preventing more food waste from being thrown away unnecessarily.

4. Industrial uses

Did you know that some of the food you throw away can be used to create biofuel and bioproducts that could power your car? The earth provided alternate energy in the form of sun and wind. Why shouldn’t our food be another source of energy?

5. Composting

Near the bottom of the food waste recycling hierarchy is something everyone can do: compost their food waste. Composting not only keeps your food scraps from going into a landfill (and creating even more greenhouse gases), it also improves soil and water quality, which promotes the growth of future crops.

6. Landfill/Incineration

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

my catch

Some things are going to be difficult to sort out. Take Trader Joe. 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 basket. Another problem is leftovers. I have a large family so we always seem to over cook and then the leftovers go to one of the fridges where they are never eaten. Leftovers are just deferred waste.

This is a huge problem. In a pending article, I will cover the nascent industry of AI for agriculture. Developments abound there, but they are expensive.

#fight #food #insecurity #food #waste

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