Reducing Food Waste Through Big Data and Other Technologies
Thu, April 22, 2021

Reducing Food Waste Through Big Data and Other Technologies

Currently, roughly 1.3 billion tons or one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization / Photo by: Andriy Popov via 123RF

 

The United Nations mentioned a climate change-driven food crisis and cited food waste reduction as a critical part of the solution, reported Tim Richards of Fast Company, a progressive business media brand. We struggle to address climate change and its impact on food security. There are solutions available to us, but they seem “daunting and politically divisive,” he wrote.

But when it comes to combating food waste, it doesn’t mean we should consume less of (or give up) our favorite foods. Instead, solving this issue requires us to consume smartly by harnessing the power of technology and data to further optimize our food system. Further, machine learning, online marketplaces, big data, and other innovative technologies can also aid us in reducing food waste.

 

Alarming Statistics on Food Waste

Currently, roughly 1.3 billion tons or one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a UN agency. In industrialized states, food losses and waste amount to roughly $680 billion. In developing states, this amounts to $310 billion. Both industrialized and developing states consume roughly the same quantities of food, 670 tons and 630 tons, respectively. Annual global quantitative food losses and waste are roughly 30% for cereals, 40% to 50% for root crops, fruits, and vegetables, 20% for oilseeds, meat, and dairy, and 35% for fish.

Consumers in developed countries waste almost 222 million tons of food, which is almost as much as the entire net food production of 230 million tons in sub-Saharan Africa. In Europe and North America, the per capita waste by consumers is between 95 to 115 kg each year. Meanwhile, consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia dispose of only 6 to 11 kilograms per person annually. Meanwhile, 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing in developing countries. In industrialized countries, more than 40% of losses occur at retail and consumer levels.

In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an agency that seeks to safeguard human health and the environment, estimated that more than 75 billion pounds of food reach landfills and combustion facilities than any other material in everyday trash. This comprised 22% of discarded municipal solid waste, per EPA’s September 2019 factsheet.

How Big Data and Other Technologies Can Aid in Cutting Food Waste

Modern farming has evolved to incorporate technical advances such as machines for plowing and harvesting, fertilizers, controlled irrigation, pesticides, crop breeding, and genetics research, wrote Jean Frederic Isingizwe Nturambirwe and Umezuruike Linus Opara of The Conversation, a not-for-profit media outlet. The aforementioned advances have aided farmers in producing large, quality crops in a “fairly predictable way.”

However, we still have a long way to go before we get the possible yields from various kinds of soils. Big losses occur during and after harvest as monitoring and handling produce is still not done well. Hence, the agriculture industry needs smart and precise solutions to address this. Fortunately, such solutions are available.

For example, precision agriculture enables farmers to optimize their returns and save resources, which can be achieved by deploying electronic sensing devices that gather data in soil, the environment, or crops. The data collected by the devices can provide valuable information for decision-making through data analytics. The objective here is to maximize soil usage in a particular field, control crop care, and make intelligent decisions about handling produce after harvest. In Nturambirwe and Opara’s research published on online database Science Direct, they suggested that data-driven solutions offer a number of benefits.

The authors’ research involved the role of data analytics in detecting defects in fruits and vegetables and monitoring the quality of fruits and other foods. Sensors can also be used to find insects and detect diseases in fruits and vegetables. They can even monitor the chemical composition and measure physical properties like firmness and acidity to determine product quality. Not only that, sensors can help determine the best harvest time and control growth conditions such as water supply. Such devices can transmit data about these attributes to computer algorithms for analysis, minimizing losses at harvest.

When products are in packhouses, they must be graded and sorted according to quality standards to “determine their suitability for different consumer destinations.” Export products need to be kept well during long-distance transport or on the shelf. For local markets, the requirements regarding quality will be different. Specialized sensors can take measurements and generate data to grade and sort the products to determine if they are suitable for animal feed or human consumption.

Sensors can also be added into packaging materials to monitor and report the status of the product in real-time. These devices can be enabled to communicate and transmit data to a command center.

Definitely. Technology and big data revolutionize how retailers and stores manage their inventory, thereby preventing them from overordering. Grocery stores adhere to the three Ds for handling excess food: discount, donate, or discard / Photo by: everythingpossible via 123RF

 

Can Better Inventory Management and New Marketplaces Slash Food Waste?

Definitely. Technology and big data revolutionize how retailers and stores manage their inventory, thereby preventing them from overordering. Grocery stores adhere to the three Ds for handling excess food: discount, donate, or discard. With big data and machine learning algorithms, retailers can develop a better system for matching supply to consumer demand fluctuations to ensure customers get precisely what they want without overstocking inventory.

Better inventory management can also be combined with creating new marketplaces for lower-quality food, helping us save a significant share of the $47 billion in food cost retailers waste every year. New marketplaces allow price discrimination, where sellers offer the same product for different prices to different types of buyers.

For example, companies like Full Harvest sell low quality produce to food and beverage firms, while Food Cowboy offers unwanted food from wholesalers to charities and food banks. This is all thanks to big data because it makes it feasible to collect unwanted products from different sources and sell them to customers who are willing to buy them. Algorithms can help not only to better match supply to demand, but they can also notify retailers when it’s time to discount or donate food.

While it may not be possible to completely eradicate food waste, we can still try and curb greenhouse gas emissions, water waste, and other environmental impacts / Photo by: Ian Allenden via 123RF

 

The Critical Role of Technology

Cutting down food waste is a low-hanging fruit on the branch of potential solutions to combat climate change. We don’t need top-down government interventions to make changes. Instead, we just need big data, machine learning, and other technologies to develop more “efficient, less wasteful markets and supply chains.” While it may not be possible to completely eradicate food waste, we can still try and curb greenhouse gas emissions, water waste, and other environmental impacts.

Big data and other data-driven solutions can help reduce food waste by helping retailers match supply with demand. Combining data analytics with sensors can also aid farmers and suppliers in monitoring the quality of produce. However, reducing food wastes starts with us. We can do this by utilizing smart technologies to optimize our purchases. Retailers and farmers are trying to minimize food waste, but it’s up to us to do our part.