Today’s waste, tomorrow’s shortage…why the food sector must incorporate AI

November 15, 2021 | Raj Srivastav

Images of malnourished families seen in art galleries and newspapers assault our senses like no other. The sight of underprivileged, famished children moving around on the streets evokes pity. But we are generally just content providing them one square meal as an act of compassion before moving on in life.

It isn’t lost on us that food deprivation is inextricably linked to food waste. Yet we’re slumbered by the poison of indifference.

This menace has to be tackled to prevent environmental devastation and reduce animal welfare costs. Not to forget that the implications of food waste on sustainability could be severe.

Let’s admit it, we discard food that looked so fresh in the supermarket. Without disruptive technology, a better future for food will remain wishful thinking. The UN Environment Program’s Food Waste Index 2021 points to a shortage of “accurate, traceable and comparable measurement”.

Without the rescue hand of Artificial Intelligence (AI), possibly the only solution to tackle food waste, we are staring at a bleak future. Now, let’s reflect on the global numbers that are a stark indicator of this pressing issue.

The grim reality

According to recent data available with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, roughly one-third of food produced in the world each year goes to debris. This is equivalent to nearly one trillion dollars’ worth of nutritious food ending up being a toxic waste.

It’s estimated that the restaurant industry alone is responsible for approximately 10% of that food waste. Analysts claim that one-third of all food that is produced globally never even reaches people’s plates. Nearly 50% of food loss occurs during transit and storage.

Four years ago, a report published in the Guardian claimed that roughly 50% of all produce in the United States had been discarded — some 60 million tons worth of produce annually.

Not that much has changed since then. An article in the Khaleej Times makes a distressing point that in the UAE, on average, every person wastes 494 lbs of food each year during a certain festival, more than double the figure for Europe and the US, according to the Food Sustainability Index 2020. It claims that during a period of celebration there, food waste rose by up to 25%.

Food technology company Winnow estimates that food waste costs the hospitality industry over $100bn annually. As much as 20% of food purchased is wasted in kitchens since chefs lack adequate waste-management tools.

Over one-quarter of the world’s agricultural land is used to produce food that’s never consumed. What’s more, food waste releases 3.3 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

The inevitability of AI

The food industry had been making efforts to control waste by redistributing unused produce. This strategy alone will not suffice, for it involves logistical challenges and still wouldn’t be enough to control the mammoth food waste.

The foodservice sector has no choice but to be ready for digital disruption and unlock the massive potential of AI. For the uninitiated, AI performs human-like cognitive functions such as learning and reasoning and is equipped to reconfigure the world’s food system.

Three years ago, a report by Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Google claimed that AI can reduce waste and even regenerate biological systems.

According to their data, AI is capable of:

    Sourcing good food that’s grown regeneratively.

    Designing out avoidable food waste.

    Marketing healthy food products.

    Helping us make a transition to a circular food system.

    Reducing supermarket food waste by a third.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Google, in another report, estimate that technologies employing AI could help generate up to $127 billion a year by 2030. These technologies range from machine-vision capable of detecting when the fruit is ready to be picked to algorithms that ensure retailers don’t overstock food.

How does AI reduce food waste?

Currently, many startups and tech companies are offering innovative solutions to manage food waste. These firms are using AI to discriminate between types of waste and measure food quality using AI-guided intelligent meters and smart scales. The systems are programmed using Machine Learning methods to identify food that is thrown out. ML is a kind of Artificial Intelligence that allows software applications to become more accurate at predicting outcomes.

It’s undeniable that the food industry has no choice but to adopt AI and ML solutions. Scores of organizations have stood out as inspiring models. Let’s skim some shining examples.

1. The 77 Lab

Headquartered at MIT, USA, the firm uses robotic systems and advanced sensors to increase food productivity and restore the yield per hectare, which contributes to a decrease in crop wastage.

2. Gamaya

This agri-tech company, headquartered in Switzerland, uses drones with hyperspectral cameras to detect changes in fertilizer, pests, water, and crop yields. Then AI algorithms detect threats to crops and alert farmers.

3. Greyparrot

This London-based company automates waste composition analysis using AI-powered computer vision software.

4. Better Origin

A Greek-owned start-up, the company specializes in the food recycling process and turning food waste into consumable feed for poultry.

In addition to those, there are apps that indicate how long frozen items, fruit, and vegetables will stay fresh and remind users to finish them off before they go bad. In fact, such apps are programmed to learn the storage habits of individual users too.

Certain apps help users log their groceries’ expiration dates to remind them what they bought before they become unfit for consumption. Pittsburgh-based startup 412 Food Rescue had launched an app that mobilizes volunteers to retrieve surplus food that would otherwise go to waste.

Startups, food-service companies taking the lead

The heartening part is that several startups and food-service companies are showing a genuine intent to reduce and report food-waste behaviors.

US-based startup Phood identifies the movement of waste inside the kitchen, analyzes the root causes of waste, and prevents it before it occurs.

Startups such as Orbisk and Winnow have now developed an alternative approach to address the food waste problem. They provide companies with waste monitors that use AI and computer vision to detect the amount and type of food thrown away daily. The data can then be accessed to identify reasons behind the waste, allowing companies to reassess buying strategies.

Hotel groups, Accor and IKEA, are among the earliest adopters of the technology, achieving a 50% reduction in their food waste and over $880k in annual savings.

Many organizations, as part of their food waste management solutions, are tapping into emerging technologies for:

Waste diversion

    Waste avoidance

    Food recycling processes

    Mixed waste processing

The way forward

The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim for 50% less food waste by 2030. Without a global, concerted effort on the part of the foodservice industry and us, as custodians of the planet, this target can’t be achieved.

As Nigel Moore, the Vice President for Food and Beverages of ASPAC Accor Hotels, rightly notes, “If we don’t control food waste, we are not going to be having a planet to live for in the future”.

Finally, AI startups need to be heard. Experienced web developers like SDI can be the medium through which these companies can leverage their technical expertise and make a decisive difference to the foodservice sector. Call us today at +1.408.621.8481 to stay ahead of the competitive curve.

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