When food industry stakeholders discuss where waste occurs from ‘farm to fork’, there tends to be a lot of focus on the ‘fork’ side of the equation. This is valid, as nearly 80% of food waste occurs in either consumer-facing businesses (i.e. restaurants and grocery stores) and our homes. That which is sometimes overlooked is the waste that occurs at the farm level.
Recent reports like ReFED’s Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste and NRDC’s second-edition of Wasted cite 20 billion pounds as the figure for annual on-farm food waste, which, according to ReFED, is valued at about $15 billion. The reports list the most common causes of waste, which boil down to five main themes:
- Cosmetic standards: Strict cosmetic standards around characteristics like ripeness, size, color, weight, and even sugar content mean that high volumes of product are deemed inadequate for retail.
- Food safety: When recalls occur, tons of produce can go to waste as a result of weeding out the actual bad batch. In addition, food safety warnings and scares can drastically decrease demand for a specific variety of produce, leading to acute high-volumes of waste.
- Economics: When market prices are lower than the cost of harvesting labor and transportation, farmers lack a financial incentive to bring products to market. This produce often remains in the field and unharvested. Oversupply of particular crops coupled with low market demand can also lead to waste.
- Supply chain breakdowns: Insufficient storage or disruptions in transportation can impact produce quality once harvested, and this can lead to spoilage and waste.
- Labor shortages: Farmers have brief time windows to harvest their fields, and if labor is in short supply, it becomes a race against the clock to get the produce to processing before it goes to waste.
Luckily, there are a number of emerging technologies being commercialized that help address waste on the farm-level. We highlight three below.
Blockchain is an emerging technology with applications in a number of industries, including the food system. At its core, blockchain technology is, “a distributed, peer-to-peer, immutable ledger of transactions where participating members don’t need to rely on third-party intermediaries.” Because a blockchain ledger cannot be altered without all parties involved knowing about it, it is regarded as a secure tool to enable transparency in circumstances that involve a lot of individual players interacting with each other, such as the food supply chain.
Blockchain has some direct applications that address major causes of farm-level waste, most notably when it comes to food safety. When an outbreak or recall occurs, such as when romaine lettuce sickened over 170 people recently, investigators work backwards up the supply chain to identify the source. The process is time-consuming and difficult, especially since different actors use different methods for recordkeeping, including pen and paper. This can result in additional victims, significant volumes of wasted product, and massive financial losses. But, if all of the supply chain partners utilized the same blockchain ledger to keep records on produce as it moved from farm to fork, that same process could be completed with the click of a button.
An infographic explaining IBM Food Trust's Blockchain pilot. Image from CB Insights.
IBM Food Trust's Blockchain pilot with industry leaders like Walmart and Driscoll’s is one of the most tangible examples of blockchain currently applied to the food system. Prior to this initiative, it took Walmart almost a week to trace sliced mango from the aisle to the farm where it was produced. As part of the pilot, the team did the same activity using blockchain: it took 2.2 seconds.
The next category of emerging technologies that we want to highlight is solutions for extending the shelf-life of produce immediately post-harvest. Cosmetic standards for ripeness and concerns around adequate storage conditions throughout the supply chain create added pressure on farmers to only harvest crops that will maintain quality before reaching a consumer. These factors have opened the door for solution providers to innovate novel methods for keeping food fresher longer.
The actual technology that is leveraged to extend shelf-life can vary extensively. For example, there are a number of proprietary solutions for mitigating the effects of ethylene, a naturally occurring plant hormone that regulates the speed at which plants will ripen. Another technology involves applying natural coatings or membranes to plants, usually in post-harvest washes, that mediate certain processes, like oxidation, which cause a plant to ripen. Regardless of the actual science, the goal is still the same: maintain freshness during transport to ensure products arrive at the quality in which they’re expected.
Examples of solution providers commercializing shelf-life extension technology include AgroFresh and Hazel Technologies, which focus on ethylene control, and Apeel Sciences, which produces edible coatings that can ‘double the lifespan’ of certain types of produce.
Time lapse footage of strawberries treated with Apeel Sciences' Edipeel solution vs. a control. Image from Apeel Sciences.
The final technology to highlight is hyperspectral imaging, which relies on capturing digital images of products, and then applying spectroscopy to identify chemical attributes of the food.
The general idea is that every food product absorbs and reflects light differently, and by studying a food product’s unique spectral signature, one can identify particular characteristics such as how much moisture it contains or the pH, and then use that data to determine ripeness. Because the process uses imaging, it is less invasive than many of the traditional tests for food quality or safety and more accurate than tests that rely on the naked eye. The technology can be used to estimate produce shelf-life before processing or shipping (preventing potential supply chain breakdowns), or identifying the presence of foreign objects in real-time (addressing food safety concerns). As the technology advances, it is expected that cameras can be retrofitted for handheld devices, which would create a range of in-field applications, also.
The tip of the iceberg
The technologies highlighted above are just a few of the innovative solutions being developed to address on-farm food waste. In Maine, for example, farmers are using the Spoiler Alert platform to channel farm surplus towards retail businesses and value added processing organizations as part of a USDA grant, ultimately helping more local food product reach end consumers. In this case, creating new markets for excess product is helping address the economics problem that leads to on-farm loss.
No matter what technology, It is encouraging to see the growth of innovations focused on combating farm-level food waste.