As the 2015 Universal Exposition in Milan explores the sustainability of food systems, waste remains a major obstacle to feeding the planet, with about one-third of what the world produces lost or thrown away. In developing countries, for example, poor distribution networks and lack of cooling facilities result in post-harvest waste losses of 30-40%, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Meanwhile, developed economies throw away substantial amounts at the end oft eh supply chain. The average UK household, for instance, disposes of the equivalent of six meals a week.
The overall result is a significant cost to the global economy, with $1 trillion worth of food lost or wasted per year globally. The problem is so critical that, in countries like France, some are recommending that large retailers be obligated to give away the unsold food they would otherwise discard-in exchange for tax rebates as long as the quality of the food is ensured.
Technology and data analytics will also have an important role to play. Data from pallets equipped with active RFID tags, for example, can help retailers assess whether the correct temperature has been maintained throughout the journey from farm to shop. If temperature changes have reduced the shelf life of an item, the grocery can discount the produce to sell it more quickly. The potential savings are substantial: In the US alone, food waste at he retail and consumer level incurs annual losses of $162bn.
Another problem for retailers can be over-ordering. US-based company BioHitech America aims to address this challenge by enhancing its aerobic digesters with big data. As each item of waste is weighed, information is input via a touchpad on the nature, origin and time of disposal. Stored in the could, the data can then be analyzed by food retailers to reduce the purchase of products they don’t end up selling.
Meanwhile, researchers at MIT have modified near-field communication tags to accurately detect whether a product is safe to eat. The technology sues modified carbon nanotubes whose conductivity changes in the presence of the gas (for example, ethylene or biogenic amines) given off by the microbial activity responsible for food degradation.
Such sensors could tell consumers which items of food are ripe or about to deteriorate, thus reducing home wastage. “You can imagine each food container reporting on the nature of the contents,” says Timothy Swager, director of MIT’s chemistry department. Or you could have ripening bags that determine when you need to eat something.”
The challenge, of course, is implementation. Mr. Swager points out that sensor costs must fall further before they can be used on individual packaging. And while agribusinesses can invest in field sensors and satellite tracking to optimize food production, such technology remains unaffordable for the smallholder farmers that produce about 70% of the world’s food.
But in a world where at least one in nine still go hungry and pressure on resources such as land and water is intensifying, what seems clear is that using data to cut food waste will play an increasingly important role in feeding the planet.