Could tech reduce food waste and help feed the world?

By Tom Jackson
Technology of Business reporter

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionIf we cut food waste by a quarter we could feed the world's hungry, says the United Nations

Do you often buy more food than you need and end up throwing lots away?

You're not alone. Food waste is a big and growing problem, and growers, distributors, restaurants, supermarkets and householders all bear some responsibility.

But reducing food wastage by a quarter would mean there was enough to feed all the malnourished people in the world, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

While governments, businesses, charities and celebrity chefs are all trying to tackle the issue in different ways, the fact remains that each year, developed countries waste almost as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces.

Could technology make more of a difference?

Local heroes

Tessa Cook hopes her Olio app, which connects neighbours and local businesses wanting to exchange or sell surplus edible food, will foster a "food sharing revolution".

Users open the app, add a photo, description, price, and details of when and where the food is available for pick-up.

image copyrightOlio
image captionOlio co-founders Tessa Cook (right) and Saasha Celestial-One launched a food sharing app

Food hunters can look for items nearest to them and arrange pick-up via private messaging.

"I'm a farmer's daughter, and so have always hated throwing away good food, because I know from first-hand experience just how much hard work goes into producing it," says Ms Cook, who co-founded the service with Saasha Celestial-One.

"The inspiration for Olio came when I was moving country and found myself on moving day with some good food that we hadn't managed to eat, but that I couldn't bring myself to throw away.

media captionRoti Bank in India and FoodBlessed in Lebanon get food to those in need (video available to international viewers only)

"And so I set off on a bit of a wild goose chase to try and find someone to give it to, and I failed."

Since launch in January, the app has been downloaded 50,000 times and has facilitated 250,000 transactions. Olio plans to expand into 33 more countries this year.

But there is still a lot of work to do - UK households are binning more than £12bn ($17bn) of edible food each year, costing the average family £700, says the government's Waste & Resources Action Programme (Wrap).

'Age old problem'

The hospitality sector is another major culprit when it comes to food waste, responsible for throwing away $80bn (£57bn) worth of food annually in the developed world.

So tech company Winnow has developed cloud-based software that enables commercial kitchens to record food wastage as they go and analyse their production processes.

image copyrightWinnow
image captionWinnow's system aims to help commercial kitchens track and improve their food wastage

"Food waste in the hospitality sector is an age old problem," says David Jackson, Winnow's business development manager.

"Our data shows that 10%-to-20% of all food purchased by kitchens can be wasted, which is obviously a huge cost.

"Food waste can actually cost as much as kitchens make in net profits."

The war on waste

media captionThe wedding menu was prepared by a local cafe that makes meals from food waste.

Since its launch in 2013, Winnow has grown into a global company with operations in seven countries in Europe and Asia, working with over 200 kitchens - including large companies like Compass Group and Accor Hotels.

It says firms that use its system can cut food waste in half by value.

Root of the problem

Perhaps we can reduce wastage at the point of food creation, too?

VitalFields, which has operations in Germany, Poland and Estonia, has developed a software-based system for recording everything that happens when food is grown in the field, from the time of sowing to the amount of fertiliser used.

Chief executive Martin Rand says the software analyses all the data collected and helps farmers run their farms more efficiently and sustainably. VitalFields is signing up hundreds of farmers in Poland and Germany each month, he says.

image copyrightVitalFields
image captionThe VitalFields team believe that the more data farmers have the less they will waste

"Thanks to our advisory service we've stopped tens of tonnes of nitrogen from being washed down into the ground water at just one farm. And the farmer saved money.

"That's why we say data is the fertiliser farmers should use more of."

Cool as a cucumber

A lot of food is wasted while in transit from the field to processing plants, supermarkets and restaurants, despite advances in cold storage techniques.

Israeli tech firm BT9, which also has operations across Europe and South America, has developed the Xsense system, which uses wireless sensors to monitor the storage conditions of perishable food second-by-second as it is transported, and transmits this data to clients to alert them if things are going wrong.

image copyrightBT9
image captionBT9's Xsense tags measure the temperature and relative humidity pf perishable foods

Chief executive Rob Williams says poor temperature and humidity control throughout the cold storage supply chain has been a huge problem for the food industry, but that better real-time data is helping reduce wastage.

"With our system, industry players have been able to dramatically improve the quality of their cold-chain," he says.

"It helps reduce waste by providing visibility over the life of the product. Most other solutions only measure a particular segment, which leads to gaps in knowing exactly what has transpired with regards to the product."

Do we care enough?

Despite the efforts of such tech firms, the FAO and other government bodies around the world estimate that food waste is still on the rise.

Robert van Otterdijk, agro-industry officer at the FAO, says that while technology could prove key to addressing the problem, ultimately success will come down to how much we are willing to change the way we live.

"Technical solutions are always scalable. If combined with genuine change in attitude they are very likely to see sizeable uptake," he says.

"If people still don't care, however, the technical solution will not live long."

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