the future of food, part one: waste not, want not

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The Future of Food, Part One: Waste Not, Want Not

The invisible parts of our food system are the least sexy, but they may well be the most important. 

On June 10, ten leading food startups will come together at PARISOMA to ponder The Future of Food at the fourth event in our THINK&ACT series. What are the key considerations for a Future of Food? Feeding a growing planet, shifting to sustainable production systems, enabling better consumer choices, creating optimized nutrition, growing steaks without cows? Will our diets in 2050 – by which time projections indicate our world-wide food production will need to double to avoid widespread famine – be more Soylent or scavenged?

Perhaps ironically, the latest food trends are not the stuff of the Jetsons or Star Trek; they are, rather, a bit nostalgic. The Slow Food and Locavore movements have seen a lot of success in models like Farm-to-Table restaurants. But this is still mostly a privileged phenomenon. It’s easy to be smug about food when you have enough money to send your robot butler to Whole Foods and order Munchery for dinner. But are your choices as well-informed as you think they are? Many of those choices are made for you by distributors, wholesalers, retail buyers, and chefs, and the choices these intermediaries make are informed by logistical concerns like delivery schedules and relationships with vendors. If the most sustainable ingredients present too many hurdles, some options will be eliminated before you have a chance to vote with your wallet.

The THINK&ACT lineup includes companies innovating along every part of the supply chain, from the farm to the refrigerator. Their innovations include sensors to help farmers optimize their water usage and cookies made from crickets. I’ll survey all of these in upcoming posts, but I want to start by taking a look at three companies who are innovating at the in-between. The connective tissues of our food supply chain go largely unnoticed by consumers, but – for that very reason – have potential to make the biggest impact on not just the choices we make as consumers but the options between which we choose.

One of June’s THINK&ACT presenters, Sourcery, recognizes the importance of logistics in helping restaurants and other food providers make more sustainable choices. Sourcery co-founder Peretz Partensky explains in his contribution to a recent Food+Tech Connect series that "finding local, responsible producers who chefs trust may not add significantly to the cost of a single tomato order. But the overhead in terms of time at scale makes it extremely expensive. . . . a restaurant in the farm-to-table model may have to pay 100 invoices a month from 15 different suppliers, each operating on different payment terms.”

Half of the contributors to the Food+Tech Connect series, which examines the ways technology and new business models are shaping our food systems, focus on the mechanisms of distribution. Innovation in this case is less about overturning the existing infrastructure of BigAg and more about identifying the gaps and bottlenecks that prevent food from keeping up with the rest of society. For Sourcery, this comes in the form of a payments platform tailored to restaurants and corporate cafeterias. By enabling sustainably-minded chefs to order food from many small farms without having to worry about the growing stack of paperwork that ensues, Sourcery hopes to make sustainable choices more logistically feasible for more food providers – and, by extension, for more consumers.

Enabling restaurants to make the sustainable choices that consumers might like (but that not all will insist upon, yet) is also at the heart of Pantry’s mission. Where Sourcery works to optimize a restaurant’s back-of-house operations, Pantry exists to reduce overhead in front by offering self-service refrigerator kiosks that can sell food even when the cafeteria is closed. Observing that consumers are increasingly interested in healthier and more sustainable food choices, Pantry co-founder Alex Yancher thinks the key is to enable those choices without raising the end-prices for the consumer. Pointing to the new food-delivery models of Munchery and Sprig, Yancher hopes that Pantry can provide another way for food businesses to operate without “the need for expensive real estate.”

Even if consumers and restaurants start making environmentally-conscious choices in droves, the overall sustainability of our food supply chain still reeks of waste. In the United States, as much as 40% of fresh food is thrown away. In 2012 we produced 20% more food waste than we had in 2000, and 50% more than we had in 1990. This is a problem in most wealthy nations, but while France just passed a national law requiring food retailers to put unsold food to productive use, only local and state-wide measures have found any traction in the US.

That’s where companies like Revive Foods come in. Revive sees their mission at a systemic level: not only is half of all wasted food fresh, edible produce, but disposing of it costs as much as $750 million a year and – if you factor in the huge amount of water taken to grow this food in the first place – consumes 25% of our fresh water resources. Revive steps in by taking this edible, but not necessarily Whole-Foods-display-quality food and turning it into low-sugar, artisan jams that it sells both wholesale and to consumers.

It’s another throwback in a list of innovations: my grandmother, growing up in Kansas during the Great Depression, learned to make jam from her mother, as part of a family tradition passed down through generations of frontier settlers. “Waste not, want not” is part of my legacy, as it is for many others. But my grandmother’s jams were the preserves of their orchard harvest, a way of shoring up resources within an individual family during times of plenty so that they would have them in times of want. It’s an ethos that has fallen by the wayside in wealthy societies with refrigeration and centralized distribution systems that can bring us any kind of produce in any season. Waste is easy now, because it seems to come with no cost. But the costs, we are starting to realize, are systemic. Now that we’ve started to internalize, as a society, the personal responsibility we each bear for planetary welfare, we have to turn toward a global consciousness for solutions. To scale sustainability, we have to think in a big way about the systems that produce and distribute our food, not just what individuals encounter. Identifying the gaps in the systems that bring us a wealth of food choices and innovating within and among those is key to creating a more sustainable future of food.

The THINK&ACT series, a production of FABERNOVEL and PARISOMA, aims to bridge the gap between startups and large organizations. It explores the cutting-edge of industry, tech and design. From the future of driving, to the shared city and big data advertising, we gather industry trailblazers to share their stories, demo their products and engage with our diverse community. THINK&ACT is a celebration of the progress industries have made and inspiration for the future.

Join us on Wednesday, June 10th (6:30pm-9pm), as we celebrate the success of the food startup economy with a night of demos, delicious food, and rich conversation with thought leaders shaping the way we grow, source, and consume the things we eat.

PARISOMA provides freelancers and early-stage companies with the space and tools they need to support their business.