AI Can Solve Our Food Waste Problem
Wed, April 21, 2021

AI Can Solve Our Food Waste Problem

While millions of people starve every day, tons of food are tossed out, which is very alarming. Food waste, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is "the discarding or alternative (non-food) use of food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption” / Photo by: Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123RF

 

Every day, millions of families across the world, particularly in developing countries, struggle to find enough food to eat. Reports show that world hunger has steadily increased in recent years. In 2018, approximately 820 million people worldwide were undernourished – up from 785 million people four years ago. 

While millions of people starve every day, tons of food are tossed out, which is very alarming. Food waste, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is "the discarding or alternative (non-food) use of food that is safe and nutritious for human consumption.” Aljazeera, a Qatari state-funded broadcaster in Doha, Qatar, reported that an estimated 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted or lost annually. In the US alone, food waste is estimated at between 30% and 40%. The USDA’s Economic Research Service stated that these figures are equivalent to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food. 

"We waste about one-third of the food produced for human consumption, at a cost of $990 billion per year," Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said.

However, food waste is only going to get worse. Riccardo Valentini, a professor at the Università della Tuscia and BCFN Advisory Board member, stated that climate change will contribute to increasing global food prices within a range of 3% to 84% by 2050, posing a serious threat to food production and security. “Successfully dealing with the issue of food access is, therefore, the great challenge for the coming years,” he said. 

According to Food Tank, an online site focused on building a global community for safe, healthy, nourished eaters, food waste happens before food is even purchased due to improper handling, quality deterioration during transport, and inadequate infrastructure for cooling and storage. During these stages, it was estimated that 2% to 20% of fruit ad vegetables in developed countries and 24% to 40% in developing countries are wasted.

Fortunately, artificial intelligence has the capacity to solve our food waste problem, especially considering that it’s now playing an integral role in many industries. According to Research and Markets, the world’s largest market research resource, the growth of AI in the food and beverage industry between 2019 to 2025 is forecasted to attain over 65.3% of CAGR. Thus, experts believe that AI can also hugely help in food waste management.

AI Can Reduce Food Waste

With billions of food wasted in our world every year, experts have focused on modern technologies, particularly AI, to tackle this issue. A 2019 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Google showed that AI has the potential to help reshape the world’s food system because it can create value, protect, and regenerate biological systems. There are three areas where AI can provide the biggest impacts: designing and marketing healthier food products, designing out avoidable food waste, and sourcing food grown regeneratively and locally where appropriate. 

According to McKinsey & Company, the trusted advisor and counselor to many of the world's most influential businesses and institutions, AI can generate an estimated economic opportunity of up to $127 billion a year in 2030 by reducing food waste. This can be achieved in several ways. Currently, many farmers are starting to use AI technology to grow their crops. Traditional agriculture practices such as mono-cropping, blanket application of synthetic chemical fertilizers, and intensive land use can be replaced with more regenerative agriculture practices with the help of AI. 

Farmers can use data from drones, remote sensors, satellites, and smart farm equipment to make smart decisions on where to grow crops, how to optimize crop rotations, and when to sow, compost, and harvest those crops. At the same time, farmers can manage their work more effectively with the help of data-driven software and AI solutions by providing outcomes for regenerative agricultural practices without expensive and time-consuming field trials.

According to Tech Xplore, an online site that covers the latest engineering, electronics, and technology advances, machine learning is also capable of reducing food waste because it can find patterns in data, make predictions, and propose decisions. Sensors can also be used to gather data that can help control the growth conditions as well as accurately determine the best harvest date. For instance, some German smallholder farmers have been using smartphones to check the quality of their crops by sending crop images to be processed by experts through machine learning models. The feedback is then sent to the farmers. 

With billions of food wasted in our world every year, experts have focused on modern technologies, particularly AI, to tackle this issue / Photo by: daisydaisy via 123RF

 

AI Technology in Solving Food Waste

AI technologies that can solve food waste are increasingly becoming popular across the world. For instance, UK-based Winnow incorporates an AI-powered ‘bin’ which can automatically identify what an item’s cost is and give info back to the kitchen staff. This ultimately helps them cut food waste in half. David Jackson, Head of Marketing at Winnow, stated that kitchens that are using Winnow are saving over $30 million a year, which can cut food purchasing costs by 3% to 8%. 

“We believe that with such a strong competitive advantage to reducing food costs by tackling waste the rest of the industry will quickly wake up to the commercial opportunity this new approach brings,” Jackson said. 

Aside from that, Silicon Valley startup Farmstead introduced an online grocer that predicts product demand using AI technology. This aims to encourage consumers to never overstock and carry just enough of the items customers want. While AI can develop more and more tools to help us manage our food waste, experts believe that state bodies and regulators should also take this issue seriously to tackle the food waste issue. 

“Effective measurement is fundamental to tackling food waste across the global food system. Large food businesses like Tesco have committed to share their food waste data publicly. State bodies and regulators should be encouraging mass adoption of measurement and prevention methodologies such as Winnow where there is the largest opportunity to reduce wastage,” Jackson said. 

AI can offer as much help as we need. However, it is still up to humans to significantly reduce our food waste every year.