How these 6 tech startups are tackling food waste

The world’s population is currently at 7.8 billion and is set to hit 10 billion by 2050 or even earlier. More people means more food needed – unfortunately, it also means more food wasted. About a third of all the food produced today goes to waste, and both businesses and governments are scrambling to find answers to cope with and reduce high volumes of waste.

Several startups are making innovative use of technology to detect food spoilage, keep food fresh for longer and process food waste in environmentally sustainable ways. While many of these tech solutions may seem avant-garde now, they may well be the pillars on which we base our anti-waste projects in the near future. Let us take a look:

1. Non-invasive and real-time monitoring of the first signs of spoilage

RoboScientific, a British technology company, won an agricultural tech competition hosted by Tesco for its device that detects minute changes in volatile organic compounds that livestock and plants emit. That could potentially indicate sickness or spoilage—just like how a robotic nose would work. The company stated that this device’s inspiration dates back to the middle ages when doctors would detect disease in their patients based on the odours in their breath and faeces. The robotic nose can help agriculturists contain disease or spoilage before it spreads too far and thus intervene to minimize food waste.

2. Software to monitor produce freshness

This software helps food suppliers and retailers make smart decisions about food freshness and when it is time to throw produce out. Spoiler Alert analyses waste levels and suggests various waste reduction tactics while integrating food donation into the workflow. On the other hand, Winnow deploys a smart scale to weigh and code food waste after which it comes up with reduction strategies. This technology is perfect for both food and hospitality businesses. Another useful mobile tool inclined towards groceries is Wasteless, which uses digital price tags that allow dynamic product pricing based on their shelf life.

3. Biotech to improve the appearance of the produce

While containing spoilage is one part of the solutions, other startups are preventing it from happening. For instance, Hazel Technologies has come up with packaging inserts in the form of small sachets that can be kept in crates of fruits and vegetables. The sachet contains active ingredients that stop the formation of the plant hormone ethylene (which causes ripening) and have antifungal properties to prevent decay. Another startup, US-based Apeel, has developed an edible coating for fresh fruits and vegetables that retards oxidation and water loss. The company is currently valued at $1 billion, making it a famous agri-tech unicorn.

Using Anaerobic Digestion to produce biogas

AD is nothing but a process by which food waste breaks down to produce a methane-rich gas (biogas) used as sustainable energy via CHP and high-quality natural fertiliser.

Waste2ES, a food waste management and recycling solutions company in Hertfordshire, has slowly emerged as a pioneer in combating food waste.

Their systems implement Aerobic and Anaerobic Digestion technologies to unlock, drain and remove the water held naturally in the fabric of food waste, and consolidate the food’s caloric content. The systems economically convert food waste into an odour-free and valuable stored energy form.

Antimicrobial tech for safe-keeping produce

Antimicrobial products can allow for produce to be stored safely at home and in the supermarkets for longer. Parx Materials, a Netherlands-based startup, creates antimicrobial plastics for food retailers to use in their fruit stands and recently signed a partnership deal with PepsiCo. Produce Mate, a US-based startup, designs antimicrobial mats for produce storage at home. Overall, interest in antimicrobial technologies as a food waste solution is set to go up, with market research company Grand View Research estimating that the sector could be worth around $12 billion by 2024.

6. Low-tech solutions in developing nations

High-tech solutions may be cool, but they do not necessarily have universal application. Lower-income countries, for instance, may not have the resources to manufacture or import such solutions. Therefore, there is an increasing focus on ‘non-sexy’ waste management options that are cheap, durable and effective. Uganda-based Harvest Agricultural Solutions, for instance, promotes the use of hermetic containers among farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Hermetic containers are airtight and thus prevent mould and insects from thriving inside.

While the technology has existed since the 1980s, it is only now being widely promoted in Asia, Africa, Central America and the Caribbean.

The original hermetic bag was designed at Purdue University and is now being sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Over to you

In the fight against food waste, it is essential to remember that the mere development of new technology is not enough – it needs to be applied in the right way. For instance, hermetic containers on their own do not work without suitable drying technology, which means that farmers need access to both. Data from research shows that 40% of the food waste in developing countries occurs right after harvest or processing. In comparison, in developed countries, over 40% of waste occurs after the food has reached the retailers and consumers. By taking these regional factors into account and developing solutions that target waste at its primary source in a cost-effective fashion, we can strengthen our supply and distribution chains so that food can reach the right consumers in the right quantities at the right time.

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