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How Can Smart Technology Help Fight Food Waste?

Discover The Technological Advancements That Prevent Climate Change.

Imagine unpacking your supermarket shopping, then immediately putting a third straight into the kitchen bin. Seems absurd, doesn’t it? But it’s the true extent of the food waste emergency. Globally, 33% of all food produced is loss or wasted, annually. This is estimated to cost a staggering $1 trillion, each year.

This 1.6 billion tons of often edible food ends up in landfill. As the produce decays, it generates Methane - a potent greenhouse gas more harmful than CO2. Worldwide, food waste contributes to 10% of the planet's total greenhouse gas emissions; causing a devastating effect to our environment.

In the US alone, production of wasted food generates the equivalent of 37 million cars worth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only is it incredibly wasteful in terms of produce, resources and energy, it places additional pressure on an agricultural industry already besieged by significant issues as a result of climate change, degrading soil and falling global commodity prices. And it comes at a time when global population growth is threatening a worldwide food security crisis. Our challenge should be not just to grow more but to make use of the food we already grow.

As 80% of all food waste occurs in restaurants, retailers and in our homes, campaigners and charities are focused upon essential education and behavioural change. However, with 20% of loss occurring within production and distribution, how can technological advancements combine with social change to minimise global food waste.

On-farm solutions.

The EDGAR-FOOD database has been hailed as the world’s first global food emissions survey. The projects researchers at the European Commission Joint Research Centre have revealed that of all greenhouse gases generated by our food system, 71% comes from agricultural land use. 45% of all fruits and vegetables cultivated are wasted each year. Much of this does not even leave the farm gate. High cosmetic standards may mean that farmers lack the financial incentive to pay labour to harvest the ‘ugly’ produce, deemed unacceptable by retailers – so nutritious fruit and vegetables are simply left to rot in plantations. The harvest window is short and in regions heavily affected by negative migration, labour can be in short supply, compounding the issue further. But in fact, for those not bothered by the superficial appearance of ‘wonky veg’, buyers can pay up to 40% less; which also helps farms maximise their full harvest. Globally, in the past 40 years, we have lost 1/3 of our arable land due to soil degradation, erosion and increased soil salinity. Combined with a progressively changeable climate, many of the world’s farming communities are under severe financial stress. Seasonal reliability is one of the biggest issues affecting farm productivity and therefore profit. The previously predictable rains fail, leaving reservoirs low and far less fresh water available for crop irrigation. Farmers must adhere to strict water management, employing drip systems. Where they have little choice, over irrigation with saline or brackish waters degrades soil further. In somewhat of a revolution, agri-tech business, ALVÁTECH is leading the way with its sustainable water treatment for agriculture by improving the quality of irrigation water. It is already helping farmers across the globe to improve productivity and increase yields in terms of quantity and importantly, quality. The water keeps the agricultural soil healthy. It maintains stronger, healthier plants that grow faster and consistently bear produce of higher value - reducing food waste from inside the farm gate.

By disrupting the behaviour of the water molecules, the chemical-free, solar-powered technology means that farmers can use low quality, hard and even high salinity water to irrigate. In turn, this helps to conserves the valuable fresh water in the region, particularly during areas of the world affected by drought. The smaller salt crystals in the treated water do not damage the soil as untreated saline water does – ensuring that the farm remains productive and profitable in the long term.

The EDGAR-FOOD report hopes to help Governments and policy decision makers to take appropriate action. This includes the use of solar-powered agricultural technologies as the growing volume of emissions result from increased energy use, particularly in developing countries, where supply can also be unreliable.

Protection and preservation technologies are also at the forefront of the agricultural innovation and sustainability sector. Biotech companies such as, Clean Crop and AgroSustain have developed environmentally friendly post-harvest preservation technologies. Created to kill mould, these biological treatments ensure that produce not only lasts longer but is also safer to consume.

Extending shelf life.

There has been much attention on packaging in recent years but this extends beyond the reduction of plastics. Innovative smart packaging has been developed to work with the produce biology itself, such as intelligent packing inserts that release vapours can triple shelf life. Sachets developed by U.S-based, Hazel Technologies release the naturally occurring chemical, 1-MCP, which tells the produce that it is not the right time to ripen. All manufacturers need to do is pop one into every packet. The world’s largest transporter of food, Maersk Shipping, is also heavily invested in biosensor, atmospheric technology to ensure fresher produce reaches its destination.

Whilst applying a wax to fresh produce to increase shelf life has been a technique since the 1920’s, the latest technology focuses on ethylene control – the plant hormone responsible for promoting the ripening process. Easily applied on at the farm in post-harvest washes, these edible coatings have been proven by crop scientists to greatly reduce spoilage and increase freshness for longer. Apeel’s edible coating has even been sustainably developed using an agricultural by-product. Made from discarded grape skins from the Californian wine industry, Apeel state their coating extends shelf life by five times.

These new invisible coatings have also been publically endorsed and have attracted investment from celebrity supporters, including Oprah Winfrey. This is key when highlighting the amount of food waste issue and driving consumer behavioural change.

There’s an app for that.

Once consumers are aware of the extent of food waste, their smartphones makes it easy for them to take positive action, often providing an additional money-saving incentive.

Now available in 32 countries, Olio connects 1.7 million customers with local businesses and neighbours so they can donate unwanted items; for example, perishables that wouldn’t be safe to eat once they return from their holiday.

“Greenhouses gases generated from food waste are 4-5 times of that produced by the global aviation industry”. Tessa Clarke. Co-Founder of Olio.

‘Too Good to Go’ links consumers and restaurants, selling ‘magic boxes’ for just £3 - 4 pounds. In September 2020, the app reached the milestones of saving one million meals and 2,500 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Focused on the hospitality sector, the award-winning data-driven software from Winnow uses cutting-edge AI technology to help kitchens optimise ingredients, and monitor food waste. Now available in 40 countries, Winnow state that their tech saves over $30 million annually and that a meal saved from the bin every two seconds. A relatively unknown cause of global warming, food waste is far more than just a moral, social or even a humanitarian concern; it poses a substantial global environmental hazard.

Whilst awareness and social change is key, industry advancements are focused on meeting the United Nations Sustainability Goal of reducing food waste by half by 2030. Emerging technologies are leading the way in reducing on-farm wastage, spoilage in the distribution supply chain and extending produce shelf life. Combined with ‘given in kindness’ app’s, like Olio, we can all do our bit to reduce food waste and its effect on our planet.


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