What Should We Do About Wasting Food?


by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

What follows is a summary of a presentation I made earlier this year (2019) to a Canadian, non-profit organization dedicated to reducing food waste. This took place in Toronto.

Why Worry About Wasted Food?

According to the UN’s FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), global population is going to expand to about 9.3 billion by 2050 (only 31 years from now) – an increase of close to 30%. Meanwhile, because of the expanding global middle class, food consumption per person is also rising. As a result, the FAO projects that while population may rise by 30%, they also project that food consumption will rise by 50- 70%. And consumption of meat and dairy products is projected to rise faster still, and they represent the most expensive calories of all in terms of resource usage.

As virtually all arable land is already under production, we will need to find better ways of producing food. So how do we increase the world’s food supply?

According to Second Harvest in their publication “The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste”, “Nearly 60 percent of food produced in Canada – amounting to 35.5 million metric tonnes – is lost and wasted annually.”

We probably can’t completely eliminate all wasted food, but if we could, we could effectively double food supply!

The Importance of Wasted Food

The issue of wasted food actually sits at a crossroads of many different developing trends, which include:

  • The UN’s projections of population growth over the balance of the century, combined with the even more dramatic projections on the increased demand for food.
  • Technological developments in several different areas, particularly:
    • Artificial intelligence (“AI”) and the management of personal health.
    • 3D printing of food.
    • Blockchain technology.
    • The Internet of Things, and
    • Evolutionary algorithms.
  • Climate change, carbon capture, and reductions in fossil fuel and resource use.
  • The ethical treatment of animals (including PETA).
  • The production of slaughter-free meat, and meatless substitutes; and
  • Traceability / transparency and accountability in food sourcing.

I’m not going to address all of these issues. Some of them are already pretty well known, such as the effects of climate change on agriculture, and the emission effects of food production. Instead, I’m going to try to provide an overview of how the mega-challenges facing the food system tie into these areas, how that might play out, and then make some suggestions about where this organization might focus your efforts. To illustrate how some of these developments may play out, let me give you a vignette, a story about the future, projecting how a Toronto couple might go about preparing dinner 10 years into the future.

Following the Bread Crumbs: Preparing Dinner, March 2029

It’s Saturday, and since it’s Mark’s turn to cook dinner for he and his wife, he decides he’s going to make his own recipe for chicken parmigiana with pasta & vegetables.

He tells his personal AI, Alfred, of his intention, and then heads to the supermarket. While his car is driving Mark to his usual supermarket, Alfred is busy: It reproduces Mark’s recipe from records of the times past when he’s made this dish (Mark has never written it down). It creates a list of ingredients needed, and adds them to the running list of things that Mark and his wife Marissa need at the supermarket so that Mark can buy them all while he’s there. It then transmits the shopping list to the supermarket’s AI, Libby.

Libby could, of course, have a grocery picker select all the items and ship them to Mark’s home, but Mark likes actually selecting the things he’s going to cook, plus he enjoys browsing for new things on the shelves that Libby believes he will appreciate – and might buy. For him, it’s part of the fun of cooking.

Libby also sends Alfred the nutrients in each selected item per unit, gram, or millilitre so that Alfred can match the selected list against both Mark and Marissa’s nutritional profiles. This list of nutrients isn’t like the nutritional profiles on the side of a box of corn flakes in today’s world. Instead, it lists everything contained in the food, down to micronutrients including minerals like copper or cobalt, amino acids like Methionine and Valine, or vitamins, like K.

Mark doesn’t concern himself with any of this. It only impinges on his awareness when Alfred indicates that he’s not getting enough of something, or is consuming too much of something else – typically the latter, especially when it comes to certain flavours of ice cream.

At the Supermarket

When Mark gets to the store, he immediately meanders off the efficient shopping path Libby had chosen for him – which both Alfred and Libby expected, but about which they refrain from commenting. Mark walks into the fruit & vegetable section, and starts looking over spiralized zucchini, broccoli slaw, and various other veg possibilities before selecting a small container of mixed vegetables that Alfred recommends be lightly sautéed in butter before serving.

Alfred knows that Mark enjoys cooking, likes sautéed vegetables, and it decides that Mark and Marissa can afford the tiny amount of saturated fats in a small amount of butter, in part because it’s offset by the natural nutritional value of butter.

The container of vegetables, measured by Libby on instructions from Alfred, contains the optimal amount of vegetables Mark & Marissa like, plus 3% over, based on a wide range of variables, including the history of how much they like to eat on this day of the week, the season of the year, the temperature and weather outside, the time of day they plan on eating, what their health monitors are saying about how they are feeling, whether they are showing symptoms of deficiencies for things like vitamin D, A, or iron, and based on the flavours and textures of the items they will be eating. The container is prepared, weighed, priced, and packaged by the store’s robot server, which forwards pricing information to Libby to add to Mark’s bill.

The CustomChef Robot Processor

Next, Mark confirms his selection of a customized mix of vegetables and grains from CustomChef™, a food processing company. The CustomChef robot is the supermarket’s on-site food processor, and it is preparing the mixture of grains & vegetables as pasta – rotini – for Mark. Alfred has specified to Libby what Mark wants in his packaged mix, including Mark’s gluten-free medical requirement, and Libby has passed it along to the CustomChef processor to prepare.

CustomChef’s corporate owner has, in conjunction with this supermarket chain, installed a 3D printer /processor/extruder that custom mixes basic ingredients in the precise measures each customer wants for that day’s shop. This is a high-margin, premium product – or production – that nonetheless saves money for the consumer by minimizing waste, and making use of lower cost, but nutritious, ingredients. It has a wide range of ingredients available, but juggles the amounts available in every store, based on the precise, real-time inventory reports it gets from Libby in each store.

The CustomChef processor can produce foods in a variety of forms – pasta, cookies, crackers, patties, assorted kinds of salads, and more – according to the application. It uses pre-packaged cartridges of specific ingredients dispatched on a Just-in-Time basis to every store, and monitors the age of every cartridge, each of which has an RFID tag. Using AI and evolutionary algorithms, CustomChef is able to keep its ingredients fresh and its supply chain lean. This keeps profits high, and food waste negligible.

Mark’s order was arranged by Alfred and Libby while Mark was en route to the store. It contains a wide range of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains, including some ugly ones that are nutritious, but wouldn’t be selected otherwise. Many of the ingredients are high in nutritional value, but cheap because there isn’t much call for them outside of applications like CustomChef. This includes items like seaweed, kale, unsweetened dark chocolate, egg yolks, Brussel sprouts, certain kinds of yeasts, and various kinds of beans. These have been pre-ground, blended, and measured to Alfred’s specifications in the store, priced and custom processed into baked rotini, then presented to Mark by CustomChef’s in-store robot server.

The capital investment of placing food processors in every one of Libby’s major stores was steep, but it has more than paid for itself in less than 4 years – and presents a deep, competitive moat that deters most competitors. Mark and Alfred like it because they get yummy food that is customized to Mark and Marissa’s needs.

Interactive Tomato Sauce

Next, Mark goes over the pasta aisle to select a tomato sauce. Both he and Marissa like a spicy, Arrabbiata sauce, so Mark asks Alfred to highlight where these are on the shelves. All of the relevant containers appear to glow in Mark’s LookingGlass™ computer monitors as Alfred highlights them. Alfred recommends the one that best suits their nutritional needs, but Mark sees a brand he’s heard of, but has never seen carried by this chain before. He pulls it down from the shelf and starts to access the information that is virtually available from the bottle.

Mark asks where the recipe for this sauce comes from, so Alfred sends an inquiry to Libby, which passes it onto the manufacturer. The manufacturer sends the information, plus a short video, tracing the original recipe back to a family recipe from Lazio, Italy, five generations earlier. Mark is interested in the information, but doesn’t bother with the video.

Alfred comments that this recipe contains more sugar than some others, but Mark shrugs and puts it in the cart anyway. Alfred adjusts the nutritional profile of the coming meal, and minutely adjusts its profile of Mark & Marissa’s projected health.

Meanwhile, the sauce’s manufacturer notes the choice, and arranges to contact Alfred afterwards to check and see how Mark & Marissa liked it. If they like it enough, the manufacturer will consult with Alfred, and send coupons for other items it makes, and for which the nutritional and taste profiles match up. It may also ask if Mark & Marissa would like to become test shoppers for a new, subscription customization program the manufacturer is testing.

Slaughter-Free Chicken

After wandering down several other aisles, and being steered away from the chips and salty snacks, Marks heads for the meat counter to pick out the chicken for their meal. Here he asks for Alfred’s commentary and recommendations.

There are 3 basic types of chicken on display: conventional, organic, and slaughter-free.

Mark favours more sustainable produce, and so used to avoid organic foods as being wasteful. Now, however, with new, robotic pest-killers, and naturally-based pesticides, and with ugly produce being blended into the foodstream, these objections are no longer as relevant. Organic chicken appeals to a specific segment of the market that maintain that it is healthier – although the research is unclear on this issue. It is, though, still more expensive.

Slaughter-free chicken, like most meats, is vat-grown from cultured stem cells – in this case, drawn from a live chicken’s feather.

Each of the three kinds of chicken has things to recommend it. The principal attraction of slaughter-free is ethical, although costs have come down to the point where it is now actually slightly cheaper than conventional chicken.

After discussing it, Mark tentatively selects conventional chicken, then asks Alfred to review online comments about the producer. These are largely positive, and the chickens are free-run, although not free range. However, there are a small number of criticisms of how the animals are treated by the farmer. Mark asks for more details on these comments, so Alfred delves and finds that these commenters are all PETA members – and hence may be biased against all conventional meat, and may not be commenting fairly on the practices of this farmer.

Mark thinks it over, and decides that once the meat has been breaded, browned, and baked in sauce with mozzarella cheese on top, they may not be able to taste much difference, and so opts for slaughter-free chicken. Alfred affirms that the likelihood of there being much difference in flavour is slight. And with that, Mark starts heading for home.

The Right Snack

As he walks towards the exit, though, he happens to pass the cookies, and stops. “I love lemon cream wafers,” he says out loud.

Alfred replies, “Yes, but they’re nothing but sugar and simple carbohydrates. And the last time you bought them, which was 13 months ago, you never finished them, and most of them were thrown out. Why not try these instead?” Alfred continues, highlighting a package low on the shelf. “They contain nuts, seeds, and Stevia, and, based on my analysis of your taste preferences, you’d actually enjoy them more than the lemon wafers.”

“You’re no fun, Alfred! I like eating junk food every once in a while. And my weight and nutritional profiles can afford it, can’t they?”

“Yes,” says Alfred. “But why not try something new that you’re likely to enjoy even more, and that is also better for you?” Mark grumbles about Alfred being no fun again, then scoops up the cookies Alfred has indicated, and stomps towards the exit. Because it learns from experience, Alfred hardly ever loses one of these arguments with Mark any more, knowing just which arguments are most likely to succeed, and when to apply them.

Mark doesn’t need to stop at a check-out. Alfred and Libby have been keeping a running tally of everything Mark selected, and he’s been putting the items he selects in specific slots in his shopping boxes as he picks them off the shelves, ready for transport. As Mark walks out of the supermarket, Libby bills Alfred, Alfred authorizes the appropriate transfer of funds, which is well-within the amount Mark has authorized for routine supermarket shopping.

Meanwhile, the amount of food wasted is dramatically less than it would have been even five years ago. Mark’s portions of loose foods, including fruit, vegetables, and meat, were all prepared and portioned to his specific requirements. Any leftovers that are not eaten go into their home 3D food printer / processor to be blended into their foodstream.

The AI-driven, 3D printer/processor has paid for itself in a little less than 2 years by reducing their grocery costs while simultaneously cutting food waste, which makes them feel virtuous as well as clever. The size of packaged goods selected, such as the tomato sauce, is the closest possible to the size actually needed for the recipe, and Alfred has tentatively identified how any surplus can be repurposed in other foods for the next day, such as in Mark’s breakfast burrito. This is organized by Alfred, and produced in coordination with the AI in Mark & Marissa’s 3D food printer / processor.

Any food waste left at the end of each day at Libby’s supermarket is triaged: Fresh foods that did not sell and are approaching their best-by dates are donated to food banks and homeless shelters; and ugly, but still nourishing, food & food scraps are cleansed, and put into a recycling process where it can be combined in specified quantities and proportions to be used with on-site food processors, such as for baked or processed goods, or, failing that, turned into animal feed.

Food stuffs that are no longer usable for either of these results are processed as biofuels, which are then used to produce power for the supermarket, including for its delivery vehicles.

Behind the Scenes in This Vignette from 2029

So, that’s what food shopping and consumption might look like in 10 years. Will it happen precisely like this? Absolutely not – the details will certainly be different. And the biggest variable is not the technological know-how. Everything I’ve discussed could be done today, although it might be expensive and difficult to do.

The biggest unknown is human behaviour: How quickly will people accept or embrace these kinds of changes? As a result, some of the things I’ve projected may be technically possible, but people may not be ready to adopt them – yet. But you should be looking at these things, and considering how to experiment with them starting immediately, as new options become feasible. The idea of using computers to customize food and to create subscription marketing is well within the technological capacity we will experience over the next 10 years. So, let me identify some of the moving parts of this elaborately changed food chain.

Global population growth: pressure from the bottom up. I discussed this right at the outset, so I won’t repeat it.

Precision farming is about to go on steroids. Combinations of technologies have put farming at the cutting edge of technology (which, by the way, is where farmers normally are anyway). Included in the technologies that are improving precision farming are:

  • Drones and sensors of various sorts will help to optimize produce growth, assess pest threats, and even take active countermeasures against insects or wild animals.
  • Fog computing will be able to turn a field or herd into a networked computer that assesses health, yield, and potential threats thousands of times a second, and identifies emerging threats faster than any other alternative because it is literally “in the field.”
  • Robots tractors and harvesters will plow, groom, seed, weed, fertilize, apply pest protection, and harvest with greater speed and precision than humans can, creating the ability to give each plant or each animal customized, specific care in order to optimize yields and result.
  • Blockchain and IoT linkage to purchasers to provide clear, unequivocal transparency and traceability for every animal, and potentially every piece of grain, fruit, or vegetable produced right through the foodchain, all the way to the consumer. IBM ran a test using IoT to trace the origin of a shipment of mangoes. It took them 2 seconds instead of 7 days using traditional methods.
  • AI integration of all these parts into a synergistic management system, doing what farmers have done for centuries, but with much greater data depth and multivariate analysis – always under the assessment and control of human farmers making the final decisions. Since production loss and spoiled food may be the most expensive part of food production, the elimination of such wastage will become a clear focus of all technological applications, starting with AI-driven crop selection and planning.

Personal AI’s May Be Central to Eliminating Food Waste

The central technology in my vignette is the personal AI, genie, or butler – in the vignette, this was Alfred. Your AI will monitor your health, heartbeat-by-heartbeat, as well as every bite you put into your mouth. It will run a continuous model of your health compared to an optimal curve, and nudge you towards your best outcomes. It will assess how much you eat, and what, and, based on the traceability of nutrients, give a remarkably precise view of what nutrients you are getting and missing in your diet.

But as part of this, your AI will also be able to monitor what you don’t eat, what gets dumped in the garbage, what spoils, and what gets thrown away. Since this is money you’ve lost, it will help manage what you buy to optimize your purchases, balancing money, nutrition, health, taste, and personal preferences.

And it is this personal AI, of all technologies, that food processors and manufacturers should focus on, because it is the key to everything else.

If you could convince every consumer to monitor their consumption in order to minimize their food wastage and save money, imagine how much of a difference that would make. If you could convince every produce transporter, food processor, packager, wholesaler, and retailer to monitor their entire foodchain process to minimize wastage, imagine what that would do, and how it would integrate with the personal AI’s of the consumers.

Once this kind of AI-monitoring chain is completed from end-to-end, the process will become invisible. The results will not only be measurable, but quantifiable using sophisticated analytics that will revolutionize everything in every step of the food chain, from farm to fork. And the motivation is both simple and compelling: it will save money, increase profits, and improve outcomes.

What it will take is time, thought, careful planning, experimentation, and some up-front investment – but not as much as you might imagine. So, start looking now at how you can bring AI and analytics down from the ivory tower, and put it to work at the ground level of your organization. Then think what and how you can do with the data that emerges.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. Government insisted that all shipments entering America had to be pre-cleared, and tracked from the point of origin. Customs clearing agencies initially moaned and complained about the burden of doing this, but quickly learned that it actually didn’t cost them money to track the location of everything they shipped in real time. Instead, it produced an additional service they could sell to their clients. It made them money!

Always remember that the real currency of the 21stcentury is data. So find ways to create, then monetize that data – and food transparency is just such a way.

Robots, AI, and Evolutionary Algorithms

Food will be processed on a much more customized basis in the future, sometimes even, when appropriate, in real time for individual consumers. The CustomChef food processor in my vignette points in that direction.

But most of the time, consumers will be (unknowingly) grouped by nutritional, behavioural, and taste profiles, with each group being small, perhaps numbering in the hundreds, and grouped in geographically tight areas. This would allow, for instance, for customized versions of processed foods for people with specific food allergies, intolerances, or health needs, like celiacs, diabetics, or those with nut allergies.

In turn, this will lead to much more personal relationships with customers. Consumers may even become subscribers to specific food processors and manufacturers, a kind of frequent buyer club with computers doing the heavy lifting. In response, companies will seek to develop direct, personal relationships with their customers, cultivating loyalty with tight pricing, customized food, special benefits, and personalized interactions which also produce greater product differentiation, and higher profits for the vendor.

The Innovation Organization

This all points towards the need to bec an innovative organization: both for the coalition of organizations represented here, but also for the one that pays your salary.

Innovation is a motherhood issue that everyone swears they want, but in reality, innovation is something organizations subconsciously shy away from for three primary reasons:

  • Innovation requires you to do new things you’re not good at, which can make you look stupid or clumsy for a while, and nobody likes that.
  • It requires you to think new thoughts about old subjects, which is hard; you’re so used to thinking the same, tired, stale thoughts about familiar subjects that it’s hard to break out with truly innovative thinking.
  • And it’s personally risky: someone associated with a Bold, New Idea that fails hurts their personal career prospects.

There are proven ways around these problems, but they require organizations to take a, dare I say it, innovative approach to innovation. I’m making available for download handbooks on the future, and specifically on innovation, particularly The Opportunity Matrix. And if I can help you or your organization move further towards being one that is dedicated to innovation all the time instead of every once-in-a-while, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Alan Kay, one of today’s great technological visionaries, once said, “The best way to predictthe future is to invent it!” As I said at the outset, this organization is at a nexus, a crossroads of different influences. What you are doing is more important than you realize: it will improve environmental outcomes, reduce waste, improve individual health and social welfare, and increase profits, all simultaneously.

And don’t overlook the things you can learn that will be valuable to your employer once you get back there while you”re here at this conference! Don’t waste this opportunity!

And I wish you good luck, and God speed. Thank you.

© Copyright, IF Research, April 2019.