A New Database Lists Solutions To Our Food Waste Problem – Forbes
Food waste problems have long challenged the U.S. where as much as 40% of food was going into the trash, rather than to feed families. Now the ReFED Insights Engine, a new online data center with a granular analysis of food waste (by sector, state, food type, cause, destination, and impact), hopes to push solutions in front of investors, rather than a depressing litany of stats. The engine provides a deep-dive review of more than 40 solutions to reduce food waste, including extensive financial analysis.
In addition, ReFED, the national nonprofit behind his new database, put out a Roadmap to 2030: Reducing U.S. Food Waste by 50%. It argues that to accelerate food waste reduction efforts over the next ten years, we must prevent (stopping waste from occurring in the first place), rescue (redistributing food to people when it’s at risk of going to waste), and recycle (repurposing waste as energy, agricultural, and other products) food at risk of going to waste.
Dana Gunders, ReFED’s Executive Director, provides more clarity on food waste in America and how ReFED is trying to build a movement of change.
Esha Chhabra: In 2019, an enormous 35% of all food in the United States reportedly went unsold or uneaten. Where is most of this waste happening?
Dana Gunders: It is enormous! And it is happening across the entire food system. Households still account for the biggest portion of food waste (37%), closely followed by consumer-facing businesses like restaurants and retailers (27%) and then farms at 21%. The reasons for food loss and waste are different at each stage of the supply chain – for example, perfectly edible produce goes unharvested on farms due to overly strict buyer specifications or the unavailability of labor; food gets thrown away at restaurants because portion sizes are so large that customers aren’t able to finish everything they’re served—in fact, 70% of the food waste at restaurants is uneaten food on people’s plates; and many consumers still aren’t great at food management, so much of what they bring into their homes ends up going out in the garbage.
The implications of wasting food are enormous too—accounting for as many greenhouse gases as 58 million cars and making food the number one product in our landfills.
That said, we’re seeing some positive signs. The total amount of food waste has leveled off over the past few years, and the per capita amount of food waste has actually declined slightly. But we’re still a long way from reaching national and international goals of reducing food waste by 50% by the year 2030.
Chhabra: What innovations have you seen in business to address this? Any success stories that you can point to that have really shown traction?
Gunders: We know food waste is a solvable problem, and the good news is that a range of solutions to reduce it already exist. One promising solution is enhanced demand planning, which uses artificial intelligence to help food retailers better predict their supply needs. The typical American grocery stocks as many as 50,000 items, but until recently we were relying on educated guesses to determine how much any given product would sell over the course of a week. Implementing AI helps grocery stores to look at patterns of sales, weather, day of week, etc. to more precisely forecast how much inventory is needed. Fresh Thyme Market, for instance, saw a 25 percent decrease in produce losses by using this technology.
Other promising solutions that are emerging include flash sale apps that help grocers and restaurants sell food at the last minute before throwing it away, distribution innovations that send product with less shelf life to closer destinations, and innovative product lines that “upcycle” byproducts from manufacturing into saleable food products.
Chhabra: Why did you decide to create this online portal?
Gunders: We want to move the food system from awareness about food waste to action, and to do that, people need to find information that is relevant to their situation. By building the ReFED Insights Engine, we were able to create a dynamic tool that allows users to filter data and solutions that are relevant to them so that they can understand where there are opportunities to cut food waste and ultimately take action.
There’s also an enormous amount of momentum around reducing food waste right now, so the timing felt right. Project Drawdown’s 2020 Drawdown Review named food waste reduction as one of its top solutions to reduce greenhouse gases. The United Nations, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have aligned around an ambitious, but achievable goal of reducing food waste 50% by the year 2030. We’re starting to see more conversation around the impact of food waste on the environment, the economy, and society at large, yet up until now there hasn’t been a centralized hub where players across the food system could access the information they need to implement food waste reduction solutions to drive meaningful change.
Chhabra: How difficult is it to get accurate data for all this?
Gunders: Measuring food waste is far more complicated and less common than something like energy use. It takes an incredible amount of work to collect and analyze data because everyone measures it differently — and many people don’t measure it at all, so you’re often left backing into estimates from data that were gathered for a different purpose. That’s why we include a data quality number on all of our graphs in the Insights Engine. The Insights Engine and Roadmap to 2030 are based on an extensive analysis of public and proprietary data from across the entire food system. Our analysis drew from over 50 data sets and the input of dozens of experts and practitioners from the food industry, professional trades, solution providers, academia, and more. Even with the extent of our analysis, there is a lot of room for improvement and better data on this topic. There are also some exciting image recognition technologies emerging that could someday significantly improve data in this space.
Chhabra: Where do you think the most progress has been made on this issue?
Gunders: One area where there has been quite a bit of progress is standardizing date labels — you know, those “sell by” and “use by” dates you see. They don’t indicate food is unsafe, but many people believe they do and end up throwing food out prematurely. Standardizing them is the first step in addressing this, and the food industry has established guidelines for that and is in the process of implementing those. Another area of progress is with cafes going “trayless.” Because people tend to take more food when trays are available in all-you-can-eat situations, removing trays can lead to less waste. While there aren’t many of those situations operating right now due to COVID, if and when they come back, most of the big food service companies have removed trays at a majority of institutions.
Chhabra: Where do we still need to keep working away when it comes to food waste?
Gunders: This may sound cliche, but there is honestly a LOT of work to do at every stage of the food system. Our analysis only achieves the 50% reduction goal if everyone adopts the solutions relevant to them. One underpinning of all this is culture — I could walk down the street and throw a half sandwich right on the sidewalk and people would get upset that I was littering, but if I threw that same half sandwich in the garbage, they wouldn’t think as much of it. Until we fundamentally shift our culture to make wasting food unacceptable, I’m not sure we will truly make progress.
Chhabra: Do you think this is an American problem or a global problem? Are other nations wrestling with the same issue?
Gunders: While ReFED’s work is U.S.-focused, food waste is a global challenge. The United Nations has an explicit Sustainable Development Goal around this issue; countries across Europe, Africa, and Asia are working on it; and global companies are taking it on as well. We actually just heard from the Turkish Ministry of Agriculture who had used ReFED’s Roadmap to create their national plan! In addition, ten of the largest grocers in the world have committed to the Champions 12.3 “10x20x30” initiative, where they engage 20 of their suppliers to reduce operational waste by 2030. We’re excited to see the progress, but much more still needs to be done.
Published at Wed, 31 Mar 2021 18:13:50 +0000