Power Lunch: Waste Not Want Not

Oct. 16, 2019
World Food Day reminds us we already have the technology to feed billions.

It strikes me as ironic that many of the world’s approximately 870 million undernourished people rely on agriculture for their income – the very foodstuffs they grow and that the manufacturing industry then turns into meals and ingredients to feed the rest of the world. Why is this and what are we still doing wrong that so many go hungry? How can we feed them?

Part of the problem is that we are still worrying about how perfect the tomatoes look. Even while recognizing there is a problem, produce that is damaged in growing, harvesting and delivery to market, is mostly cast aside. It doesn’t need to be ditched, though, especially as it still has significant nutritional value.

Oct. 16 marked World Food Day, for the 40th time, which is odd because we don’t have a food crisis. We have a food waste crisis, created and sustained by the same commercial interests that have simultaneously delivered an obesity emergency, concealed inside their hollow calories.

A change of course is overdue, and the remarkable thing about the inflexion point we have reached is that with a little imagination, everyone can win - fat people, hungry people, farmers, manufacturers, retailers, animals, even the planet.

In developed countries, we’re seeing a willingness to change at the “fork” end of the food chain. Consumers are responding positively to public awareness campaigns about the need to cut waste; specialist shops are proudly selling “imperfect produce”; local authorities are making it easier for organic matter to reach composting facilities.

Closer to the “field” end of the chain, it is not quite as rosy. Skins and seeds - often the most nutritious parts of a plant - are still routinely discarded. Squeezing and skimming - technologies that haven’t fundamentally changed since the early days of food-and-beverage mass-production - are still fueling the waste mountain. Food manufacturers turn up their noses at the protein-packed “fifth quarter” of an animal carcass and so on.

It’s not because we lack the know-how to do things differently. The Dynamic Cellular Disruption technology invented by my company is just one example of technology with the potential to revolutionize the food and beverage manufacturing industry by eliminating waste, increasing yield and birthing new products.

What is lacking is the courage to innovate and to embrace change, the imagination to visualize a meal of the future, and what in Africa we call the spirit of ‘Ubuntu’ - the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.

By addressing these shortcomings, we wouldn’t have to wait for anything close to a decade to achieve the UN sustainable development goal, which says that by 2030 we should “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.”

In fact, this target looks unambitious in light of what we could achieve within 12-months, if we had the will and the cojones. The 2030 initiative is driven by the biggest food and beverage companies who think they will lose out if they stray too far from current production methods. In the process, they will just continue to generate massive wastage levels.

Our planet already produces enough food to sustain the extra 2.2 billion+ people who will live on it by 2050. What is urgently required is a paradigm shift based on the most basic answer to a basic question: Why do we eat?

The answer? Energy transfer. In primitive times, humans expended enormous energy in obtaining their food, so there was little likelihood of getting fat. They consumed only what they needed. 

Now, we eat because it tastes good, because we are in a particular social situation, because we’re stressed, because we worked hard and think we deserve an expensive meal, because a brilliant chef made the plate look like a work of art, because we are depressed, or it makes us feel full and happy.

Rediscovering the simple truth that we should “eat to live” is the vital precursor to a food revolution for which the all-important scientific and technological advances have already been made.

What will that revolution look like? Critically, it will be waste-free. Just as importantly, it will deliver cheaper but better food for hundreds of millions more people. Our calculations show that the mythical “dollar a day” needed to feed each hungry person can be cut to more like 40 cents.

The revolution also will be more profitable for existing big food companies. Using technology that efficiently liberates the energy and flavor in every cell of a food will reduce overheads, shorten production processes and yield revenue-generating by-products.

On its own, eliminating waste delivers a median 14-fold return on investment, according to a study by Champions 12.3, a coalition of executives from governments, businesses, universities and agricultural organisations.

The revolution will also be healthier. The ability to use discarded but nutritious skins and seeds makes a huge contribution, bolstered by the extraction of every atom of energy from all foods, reducing the requirement for artificial additives. This can be added back into existing products to create "whole foods," for example, because skins and seeds are not actually "waste" at all.

We stand at the threshold of an era in which what we now think of as waste can be turned into something that is cheap as chips but better than what the richest citizens of the world are currently eating. As with most revolutions, however, there are those who stand in the way - mainly individuals and organisations whose prosperity depends on the status quo.

My response to them is encapsulated in a quote from the American architect, designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller: “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Roy Henderson is CEO of Green Cell Technologies, a bio-technology company that is redefining the food processing sector – globally. 

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