Roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption in the world ends up lost or wasted. Simultaneously, roughly 2 billion people comprising over 25% of the global population are living in moderate or severe food insecurity. Adding another degree of complexity, our very methods of cultivating these food crops are often damaging soils and polluting water resources. These problems are global, and fittingly, new solutions continue emerging from all around the world. We take a look at a few of the solutions helping improve and mitigate impacts from the ways we grow, produce, distribute, and often waste our food.
Let’s start with food and animal agriculture. Many crop farms today are struggling with nutrient-deficient soils that get worse every year. Some are caught in a cycle of having to apply increasing amounts of chemical fertilizers each season to maintain adequate harvest yields. For those raising animals, they are able to use animal waste to help fertilize their crops, but a challenge has emerged in this area as well. The sheer volume of animal waste in some farm operations has overwhelmed the capacity for use as a natural fertilizer and led to serious environmental issues. The combination of chemical fertilizer and animal waste runoff into local waterways has caused major pollution in some areas. In response to these challenges, products and strategies are emerging to help farmers naturally replenish their soils, transition to organic operations, divert animal waste from the environment and protect water resources.
Abandoning chemical fertilizers can seem risky for some farmers, but an effective organic fertilizer made from wastewater offers a viable alternative. Talk about solutions from unexpected places! Ever wonder where the dirty water goes when you take a shower, flush the toilet, or run the kitchen sink? When your home plumbing is on a municipal sewer system, it ends up at a wastewater treatment plant. This water is cleaned of all the nasty stuff, purified and safely released back into the environment. After that nasty stuff is removed, it can be treated too, and when further refined it can be produced into a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer quite well-suited for feeding plants and replenishing soils!
In another circular solution, anaerobic digesters are increasingly being deployed around the world to turn animal waste into a valuable resource — energy. Anaerobic digesters, as their name implies, “digest” the animal waste in the absence of oxygen to produce biogas. This biogas can be refined and used as a substitute for fossil-derived natural gas in engines and industrial equipment. It can also be used to generate clean electricity. Anaerobic digesters can digest organic food waste in the same way. They turn waste into a valuable resource, help protect public health, and reduce contributions to climate change by capturing methane and providing an alternative to fossil fuel energy.
Improving Food Access
While we work to improve the environmental sustainability of agriculture, let’s not forget that one-third of the food we do produce is still lost or wasted while many around the world go hungry. The issue of equitable food access represents economic, social, and environmental challenges. Our relationship with food has changed as more people live in cities far removed from where food is grown and harvested. By working to produce nutritious food closer to urban centers, more people can gain access to a healthy diet at affordable prices. This also creates closer relationships between people and the natural environment that can lead to better stewardship of the planet. The urban agriculture movement is aiming to help make this happen.
In some less developed regions, lack of refrigeration and transportation are causing massive food waste before food can even reach the people who need it. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), these "post-harvest losses" are as much as 20% for cereals, 30% for dairy produce and fish and 40% for fruit and vegetables. In Kenya, the start-up “Solar Freeze” is working on providing mobile solar-powered cold storage facilities that allow small-scale farmers to store their produce. In doing this, more healthy food is able to be brought to market for people, farmers are able to sell more to sustain their livelihoods, and waste is reduced. This is just one small example of entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity working to solve issues critical to human and planetary health.
Closing the Loop With Food Waste
In more developed countries, food waste is a major issue for restaurants, the food and beverage industry, and even community infrastructure like sewer systems. Ever heard of a fatberg? You might have unknowingly walked above one in your lifetime as you strolled down the street, over the labyrinth of sewer pipes crisscrossing the ground underneath your feet. As restaurant kitchens and home chefs cook up meals across the globe each day, some unfortunately don’t use grease traps. When liquid fats, oils, and grease (FOGs) are dumped down the drain, it is not long before they cool down and solidify. Over time they build up and glob onto other rogue sewer debris, like so-called “flushable” wipes that don’t actually break down the same way toilet paper does. Before long they can become a monstrosity clogging city sewer systems and potentially causing pipes to burst or toilets to back up into unsuspecting homes. The cost to municipal governments to identify, break down and remove fatbergs can be enormous. One discovered in London weighed as much as over 50 full-grown elephants and was over 800 feet long. Watch this video to see the fatberg phenomenon explained, and don’t dump that grease down the drain!
As chefs become more aware of the impacts of FOGs on infrastructure, they’re also looking for ways to keep food out of the garbage. It helps them save money by right-sizing their ingredient purchases, and it diverts organics from the landfill reducing contributions to climate change through the avoided release of methane. The KITRO app is using artificial intelligence to identify and categorize food waste dumped into restaurant-kitchen garbage bins to help owners make sense of their waste. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Are potatoes 20% of your food waste every single week? That’s information you can act on.
Building Tomorrow's Food System
A lack of sustainability in our food system has implications not only to human health and nutrition, but also to our natural and built environments. Significant challenges to businesses, community infrastructure, human development and global ecosystems are arising out of this current system. But by employing nature-inspired solutions, principles of a circular economy, and technological innovation organizations are unlocking new opportunities to make the food system work better for everyone. They’re even reducing costs and healing ecosystems while they do it.