Tuck into technology to reduce food wastage
We should disrupt hunger with the same fervour as Uber and Airbnb are disrupting transport and hospitality sectors
April 24th came and went. The day raises awareness of the one thing we are all guilty of. We have all done it in our kitchens, at restaurants, weddings, parties. We waste food. We buy food that we hoard in our refrigerators; food we never ever eat, which finally ends up in the trash can. We are all guilty of poor meal planning for parties. We cook for an army, to feed a cohort. In US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand combined, half of the seafood gets wasted and nearly half the fruits and vegetables is binned. Globally, about a third of the food is wasted or trashed every year.
Ironically, in the same part of the world, millions of people don't have enough to eat. How sad is that. Call it chronic, persistent hunger or food insecurity, it is a sad reflection of our social and economic imbalances and disconnect. Hence April 24 is designated as the international day to Stop Food Waste Day.
Dana Gunter, Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says "Imagine walking out of a grocery store with four bags of groceries, dropping one in the parking lot, and just not bothering to pick it up. That's essentially what we're doing." Her organisation estimates that 40 per cent of the food in the US is not eaten and ends up in landfills. All of that produces methane that is adding to the global climate issue. Food security is the single biggest problem staring down at our multiplying population and our planet. Ironically, we will serve our planet well if we just ate the food instead of trashing it.
Hoarding food was an evolutionary necessity when agriculture took off, to deal with scarcity during the winter, or periods of famine and drought. Our hoarding habit passed down through generations is now destroying us. Governments in Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Italy, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and the US have legislated to discourage institutional wastage. We have some answers. But we need a whole lot more.
Startups are thinking about this tragic imbalance of abundances. Community Plates, a food-rescue organisation in the US, has an app that connects restaurants with fresh food to spare, with soup kitchens and shelters. Technology orchestrates this give and take so that donor and recipient organisations sign up in advance. Spoiler Alert, a startup developed at MIT is part of a growing breed of food tech companies that are linking businesses and farms having excess food inventory with food recovery agencies.
These US-based donation matching startups are spawning a food bank network across the country to feed the hungry with food that would otherwise be trashed. It's a social network of sorts that is addressing a fundamental human issue. They are still facing challenges like transporting the food before it goes bad. This is where drones could come in handy to carry food at a moment's notice to where it matters the most.
Food is wasted or discarded at every stage of the food supply chain. Vegetables are not sold because the price is too low for farmers, or the shape or colour is not right. Only good-looking vegetables get picked, while the not so attractive ones are left to rot in the fields. Why bother harvesting ugly tomatoes when retailers won't accept them, even if they aren't necessarily unhealthy? This is a great startup idea - a purpose-driven app that allows farmers to report that they have quality fruits that they cannot sell. They can be linked to food recovery agencies and an uber-like service to transport the food to nearby recovery agencies. Blockchain could be the underlying platform for this donation matching service to ensure food safety and support the many-to-many relationships in the food sharing network. In the UK, where £494 million worth of food is thrown away every week, Rubies in the Rubble makes condiments from edibles that would otherwise go waste.
In UAE, the Ramadan Sharing Fridges will be back in less than a week. The community initiative that started out in 2016 with one family stocking food in a fridge outside their home, now has an interactive Google map in Dubai that guides donors and blue-collar workers in the city. If we build a robust app combined with sensor-based fridges for this initiative, it can be extended for sharing food throughout the year. We can leverage initiatives like Mohammed Bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity that has created an open innovation platform to foster startups from anywhere with a great idea to serve humanity.
We need to ask ourselves - what are we doing with the food that we are not eating in restaurants, conferences, and parties. If we have food to spare, no one should go hungry. Technology for social good has a huge role to play matchmaker to reach food to marginalised people tucked away in every part of the world. Food wastage needs entire hackathons to come up will brilliant app ideas. We should be able to disrupt hunger and food wastage with the same fervour as Uber or Airbnb are disrupting industries like urban transport and hospitality.
Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies