Food waste has become a hot topic today, and reasonably so. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 66,500 acres of produce are left in farm fields each year. As traditional distribution systems and supermarkets are slow to address the food waste epidemic, there is growing momentum among a range of new companies to decrease waste by reshaping the food system itself.  New start-ups focusing on mitigating food waste at the farm level are disrupting the conventional, large-scale food system by implementing regional food system models, developing new markets for produce to incentivise farmers to harvest their entire crop and fostering awareness among consumers as they demand increased transparency in the food system. This upcoming generation of start-up companies sees our huge food waste problem as an opportunity to apply technology-based solutions to food production, distribution and consumption.

Throughout the supply chain, from initial agricultural production to final household consumption, 40% of food is lost or wasted in the United States. That adds up to more than $200 billion lost annually. An increase in awareness, after a landmark report by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2012, has educated consumers, government officials and food industry leaders about the massive economic losses and environmental problems caused by waste in our food system.  Americans produce nearly twice the number of calories we need, yet millions of Americans don’t get enough to eat. So why are farmers using more water, chemicals and labour resources only to leave perfectly edible and nourishing produce completely unharvested? What can technology do to change this system of wasting perfectly edible food that is slightly off-size, off-color, a bit misshapen or overproduced?

The shift to a wasteful society

There was a time when Americans were frugal. Generations that experienced world wars and the Great Depression learned how to use every last bit of the little they had to survive. Government propaganda encouraged wasting less food domestically, so that more food could be sent to our troops. For generations, lessons about how to get the most out of the food available were passed down, but in this era of cheap and abundant food, this has been lost.

Seasonality does not exist in the typical American grocery store produce aisle.  Supermarket shelves are lined with continuously exotic produce from around the world which never runs out. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization,  over 26% of produce is thrown out before it even reaches grocery store shelves because of strict size, shape and colour standards mandated by large supermarkets. Less than 2% of our population is directly employed in farming, and many of us don’t know much about how our food makes it to our plates.  Understanding what goes into growing food and where that food comes from, may mean that people are less likely to waste it.

The distance from the production of crops hinders what Americans know about their food. Our population continues to grow, while the number of farms in the United States continues to shrink. From 1935 to 1997 the number of farms in the United States shrank by 70% while the average acreage more than tripled over the same period. It seems consumption lies at the heart of modern American society, but new companies and organizations are again embracing a culture of frugality and thrift, and it’s infiltrating the food movement.

Mitigating waste through digital marketplaces

New start-up companies applying technologically based solutions to food waste are working to create a market for surplus and ‘ugly’ produce. ‘Ugly’ produce is misshapen food that doesn’t quite meet the stringent standards in place for the size, shape and colour of fruits and vegetables. Digital marketplaces that connect food purveyors and food purchasers allow for more efficient and less wasteful supply chains. Full Harvest, based in San Francisco, increases the revenue streams of California growers by helping them capture surplus and oddly-shaped produce that would otherwise go to waste. They sell produce at a reduced cost to businesses creating processed products like smoothies and soups, rather than letting it go unharvested in the fields.

Similarly, Bon Harvest in New York City sources surplus and imperfect produce and delivers it directly to restaurants that increasingly demand local, traceable food. The reduced cost – of what would normally be wasted food – improves the bottom lines of restaurants while mitigating food waste. Farmers in the region can register to create an account or ‘digital store’ where they are able to share weekly updates of the produce they will have available and connect with interested chefs – without ever leaving their farm to identify and meet potential buyers. The farmers set their own prices and they typically are lower based on how ‘ugly’ the produce is. Bon Harvest considers localizing the food system, a key component to reducing farm level food waste.  By sourcing produce from high-tech urban agriculture businesses, such as AeroFarms – the world’s largest indoor farm – the company increases the supply of hyper-local crops year-round while helping farms become zero-waste businesses.

Farm to household

Other start-ups are bypassing retailers and businesses and selling ugly produce directly to consumers.  Food delivery companies, such as Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest, offer customizable boxes of ugly fruits and vegetables to households at affordable prices. Imperfect Produce expanded to the Midwest in May and has subscription boxes ranging in price from $12 to $40, depending on the size. Their prices are 30-50% less than consumers would pay at the grocery store and their online platform is user friendly and convenient.

A key benefit of food delivery companies with a mission to eliminate food waste is their direct interaction with consumers on a weekly basis. They educate their customer base about the environmental and social impacts of their food choices. Both Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest are building awareness of the societal issues surrounding food waste, in an effort to make imperfect produce more mainstream to the average consumer. For instance, Hungry Harvest stresses the paradox of wasting food while approximately 42 million Americans are food insecure. Food insecure individuals are defined by the USDA as lacking consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life. According to Feeding America, food insecurity exists in every county in America, ranging from a low of 3% in Grant County, Kansas to a high of 38% in Jefferson County, Mississippi.  Hungry Harvest has contributed over 750,000 pounds of produce to organizations focused on solving hunger. The company also includes “ending hunger” in their mission statement.

The use of technology to optimize operations and logistics is a large reason for the success of each company. Technological advancements in delivery distribution and the use of third party service providers have helped to break down barriers to entry in an industry that has largely been dominated by legacy supermarkets.  It can be very expensive to get produce off a farm, and often times not worth the trouble if it’s a product with blemishes that will be sold at a price lower than the premium market value. This is largely due to our conventional food system – a stretched and convoluted chain where the average U.S. supermarket produce item travels 1,500 miles before it arrives at its final destination. In comparison, Imperfect Produce picks up produce from farms, brings it to their facility for packing and then distributes it directly to households. By eliminating steps in the supply chain, the produce arriving at their customer’s doorstep is so fresh because it was picked just days earlier. Now consumers have the opportunity to use their purchasing power to buy from companies that prioritize the reduction of food waste.

Throughout the global industry, mission driven food and agricultural start-ups are poised to advance technological solutions that can help farms address food waste. Their market forces are creating new investments and profitability in the realm of food waste. In a time where farms are faced with massive challenges – including feeding a growing population and eliminating food waste – technological solutions will play a major role. It is an exciting time for food technology as financial investment continues to grow and new ideas can lead us to a more resilient food system.

Photograph: Darren Wood