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02.15.22

Setting Priorities for Tackling Food Waste

Author: Apeel Team

In September 2015, Apeel was a fledgling venture with nearly two dozen team members about to embark on a new round of R&D supported by grant funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Three years into development of a plant-based edible coating to extend shelf life of fresh produce and prevent food waste, Apeel scientists were digging deep into the root causes of spoilage due to perishability and the impact on food security and the development of a sustainable food system.

Back at this moment almost seven years ago the world turned its attention to this very same challenge. First came the announcement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains (including post-harvest losses) by 2030. Around the same time, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and EPA announced a goal to halve domestic food loss and waste by 2030, and the government of The Netherlands officially called for the formation of a group of executives who would champion the cause of achieving SDG 12.3 (now known as the Champions 12.3).

Flash forward to today, where Apeel has traded out the bean bags and lawn chairs that served as office furniture in 2015 for global operations spanning several dozen supply chains across four continents. With Apeel-Protected produce in grocery stores all across North America and Europe, we’re starting to make a dent in the problems we set out to solve (e.g., stores carrying Apeel-Protected produce have seen up to a 50% reduction in food waste). But when you’re on a mission to solve a problem, and you begin to uncover the nuances and complexities, the more questions rise to the surface. 

Today the global community has a much deeper understanding of the food waste crisis than we did seven years ago, and we’re all starting to ask new questions. Apeel is asking questions like…If fruits and vegetables don’t have expiration dates, what are the thresholds where it turns from edible into waste? How should we design new products to maximize their food waste prevention and avoid greenhouse gas emission potential? And how can we educate consumers about their climate impact from using a novel technology to prevent food waste? 

The EPA recently shared an update on The Environmental Impacts of U.S. Food Waste that took stock of the current challenge while also sharing several outstanding questions that need to be answered. Here’s what we know: 73-152 million metric tons of food goes to waste each year, and food waste is the single most landfilled and incinerated material in the U.S. In addition to the massive amount of resources wasted and emissions generated by this wasted food, the uneaten food contains enough calories to feed 150 million people each year. The research shows that in order to maximize the environmental benefits of food loss and waste reduction programs, we should prioritize the following: 

  1. when comparing strategies for reducing food waste, we should focus on prevention rather than recycling (to learn more check out Apeel’s take on the food waste hierarchy); 
  2. while food loss and waste occurs at every stage of the value chain, our largest opportunity to reduce the environmental impacts will be from preventing waste at the consumer stage (restaurants and households); and 
  3. not all food groups are created equal, with animal products and fruits and vegetables being most important to prioritize because of their larger baseline environmental impacts. 

With these focus areas in mind, the EPA also outlines a few areas with unanswered questions. Why is it that Americans have a higher per capita food waste rate than most other countries? How do incentive structures and dynamics between stakeholders at different supply chain stages impact food loss and waste rates? And what are the life cycle impacts of different food loss and waste prevention strategies? (Check out the answer to this last one for Apeel HERE.) 

As daunting as some of these questions may be, and with only eight years left until we reach the 2030 deadline, we at Apeel are encouraged by the reporting of these priorities and the outstanding questions to be answered. We’re all learning and narrowing in our focus on the approaches and food waste solutions that will matter most, both to improve food security AND to address the climate crisis. We look forward to sharing more about how Apeel is contributing to the solutions and uncovering more questions in the years to come!