Food Waste Innovation
13 May 2023
Our modern diets are fuelling the climate crisis. With the average reference diet containing 14g red meat, 29g chicken and 250g dairy, our unsustainable diets have become highly reliant on a functional agricultural system. As global population continues to grow, the food industry requires a mass production system to meet demands.
The food industry is responsible for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions. Livestock farming produces 57% of these emissions, as grazing animals require vast land alongside additional land to grow feed (mostly sourced through deforestation). Plant-based food production also contributes to greenhouse emissions, mostly through the cultivation of rice and wheat, but on a much smaller scale.
However, while the earth has become negatively impacted by our dietary requirements, over 6.4 million tonnes of perfectly edible food is wasted each year - that’s enough to create 10.5 billion meals. Wastage occurs due to a variety of behavioural and logistical reasons, including food spoiled at home, poor stock rotation and large retailers giving consumers too much choice.
Whilst food waste carries a number of social implications, as 43 million people globally are experiencing food poverty, the environmental impacts often go unnoticed. Unwanted thrown away food wastes the energy and water required in production, and eventually goes to landfill to release methane upon its decomposition.
Despite the fairly grey picture painted of our current food industry, this blog illustrates recent innovative progress to improve the environmental impact of the human diet.
As meat and dairy production is responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases, the meat industry is entering a phase of large-scale change. With more than 2,400 gallons of water required to produce half a kilo of beef, manufacturers are turning to alternative methods to meet consumer protein demand.
Following the discovery of human space travel, scientists further looked into the many functions of air. Why not make food with air? ‘Air Protein’ is a more sustainable protein source than land-based production, using nature to create edible protein. Fermentation vessels are used to combine natural gases with water and mineral nutrients, producing a protein-rich flour. Using renewable energy, this probiotic process provides a neutral flavoured protein source, packed with essential amino acids and B vitamins.
Although air-based protein will not totally replace meat sources, it is predicted to support the rapid development of protein-based goods, including protein bars, cereals and shakes.
Lab grown edibles
By the end of 2023, Heston Blumenthal will pilot a petri-dish patty, produced authentically using animal stem cells (cells that can develop into any tissue type). Although the manufacturing process does not sound overly appetising, cultivated edibles mark the future of sustainable food production. When compared to the conventional beef patty, petri dish meat produces 96% less greenhouse gas emissions, whilst only using 45% of the energy, 1% of the land and 4% of the water.
Tissue engineered meat isn’t a vegetarian or vegan alternative- it is simply animal stem cells grown in a nutrient dense controlled environment. Companies are currently focusing on everyone’s favourite-chicken nuggets, beef patties (and fish sticks), but aim to culture whole chicken breasts and fillet steaks.
Although some may say the thought of purchasing ‘lab engineered’ meat sounds rather revolting, there are many benefits including the natural taste, slaughter free approach and reduced use of land, fertiliser and water.
Food Spoiler Sensors
Do you often find yourself wondering whether that packet of chicken (which has a questionable aroma) has gone off before the expiry date? Or whether the packet of mince which expired yesterday, still looks okay to eat? Well, you are not alone as one in three UK consumers throw away food once its use-by date has been reached, despite research showing 60% of the £12.5 billion-worth of food we throw away each year is perfectly safe to eat.
Imperial College London have developed ‘paper-based electrical gas sensors’ (PEGS), also known as ‘food spoiler sensors’ to detect gases and toxins in spoiled meat, including ammonia and trimethylamine. PEGS data can be easily communicated to customers since consumers simply need to hold their phone to the packaging to retrieve data. Made with biodegradable and non-toxic materials, these sensors cost under 5p each to manufacture- what’s not to love! Keep an eye out in stores as researchers have suggested these ‘win-win’ sensors will replace use-by dates in the next few years.
“The best waste is the one not produced”. The catering industry is responsible for a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, producing 1.1kg CO1 per average meal. Restaurants and canteens often advertise to cater to all needs with endless choice, however, this inclusive offering means more food is being wasted. Predicting the perfect balance of supply and demand, caterers are forced to throw away large amounts of food.
Developed in France, ‘Meal Canteen’ is an innovative food waste app designed to allow consumers to reserve and pre-order menu items, limiting the need for caterers to over-purchase. Currently best suited for school canteens, Meal Canteen allows kids to pre book meal choices to cut down food waste, meaning kitchens know how many meals they need to cook.
What can we do?
Although many of the above innovations are not for consumer usage (just yet), there are many small-scale solutions to tackle food waste and lower our relative food carbon footprint. For example:
- You can now find beef mince packaged in vacuum plastic, using 55% less plastic to save up to 450 tonnes of plastic each year.
- Most large UK supermarkets have now removed ‘best before’ dates, allowing the consumer to decide if items are fresh or not. But don’t worry, ‘use by’ dates are still mandatory for safety purposes.
- The well-known food waste app, ‘Too Good To Go’ now features 164,000 businesses including a range of supermarkets and local restaurants. Too Good To Go is a mobile app connecting customers to restaurants and stores with surplus food, delivering ‘mystery bags’ for a reduced price.
- Supermarkets, including Tesco distribute surplus food items to charities and community groups. Any unwanted groceries are used to make animal feed, or turned into energy to ensure no food waste goes to landfill.
- Although 90% of consumers would buy wonky fruit or veg, misshapen groceries contribute to a large percentage of the overall 40% food waste. ‘Oddbox’ rescues these neglected curvy courgettes and stressed asparagus’, offering a subscription service of fresh fruit and veg to your door.
- Use the ‘sniff test’ as a final check before throwing away your food.
Remember, actions that are planet friendly are also pocket friendly, so unless your potatoes have taken an ‘alien lifeform’, save some money and don’t throw them away!