The Food Waste Epidemic And How One Barcelona Startup Aims to Solve It

Keeping a close eye on how our society becomes more conscientious about food waste and taking a look at the various solutions startups work out to hack the flawed system gives us an early glimpse into how positive shifts happen in the world. Food waste is a fascinating topic, and only partly because the current numbers and existing processes are outrageous.

Until 2009, there was not much deep information to be found about the exact scale and nature of the food loss and waste in the world. Published that same year, Tristam Stuart’s book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal provides a sobering trip to the reality of food. It also highlights an incredibly important fact: with small, common sense tweaks in habits and processes, the current grave situation can be turned on its head and solve the problem of the 842 million people living in hunger around the world too.

So why do we really waste? The funnel from the field – or sea, or cattle – to our stomach leeks seriously. Problems such as poor supply chains, skewed ordering systems and lack of knowledge are all causing serious problems.

At the very beginning of the chain, farmers are responsible for 39% of all food waste within the EU. First, they overproduce their goods in order to avoid penalties they would receive if not being able to fulfill the orders coming from wholesalers and supermarkets. When the orders are slacking, the surplus ends up as landfill.

Then, while still at the farm, fruits and vegetables are strictly judged by their appearance. Owing to strict beauty standards – and let’s be honest, our pickiness – only a fraction of the ready produce is deemed pretty enough to be displayed on supermarket shelves. The ugly ones are discarded.

Next station is the retailers. Regulations allow short shelf life for most processed food product, but mundane human mistakes such as labeling errors and forecasting issues result in a lot of surplus food as well. Looking closer to home, supermarkets in Catalonia throw out €300 to €400 worth of food a day, most often fruits and leafy greens.

However on paper supermarkets are only responsible for a 5 to 18% of the food wasted, in reality they influence trashing food both at the supplier – through orders and beauty standards – and in the households.

This is where we, the customers enter the picture. The impossible beauty standards for produce is an egg or chicken problem: do supermarkets demand only beautiful produce because we won’t buy the rest or is it their standard influencing our choices? Did you know that the majority of the fruits thrown away is banana, because we wouldn’t buy those with a few black spots on them?

On the other hand the best before, super cautious expiry dates, buy one get one free promotions and irrational packaging are pushing the surplus of food to the consumers. Of course our lack of knowledge doesn’t help: poor planning, rationing and conservation skills destines 45 to 56% of food waste to household bins.

The scale of food waste worldwide is 30% which leads to the question: how can we fix the system so that 2 billion ton of food doesn’t end up as landfill – useless, not even composted or recycled – but on the plates where it is most needed?

The good news is that solutions are coming from several fields, EU Commission initiatives, civil groups and startups all started to brainstorm on the problem. One of the recent Barcelona grassroots event has taken place during Fest-Up: Barcelona’s Startup Community Festival, was the Fest-Up Service Jam. The Service Jam, organized by Swapsee, the community marketplace for talent, and Claro Partners, business innovation and service design firm, in collaboration with BarcinnoEatWith and Le18, kicked off with 18 participants from very diverse backgrounds.

Fest-UP Service Jam Group 1

Sergio Correa and Branislav Erdélyi, members of the winning team found their challenge in changing the whole supply system into a more sensible and efficient one. FoodLoop, the startup growing out of their Jam Service brainstorming together, aims to create a system that never loose any food in any possible state.

Food that is not exactly beautiful but perfectly edible can be distributed to less picky customers for discounted prices, if there is a direct channel of information between supplier and buyer. Think for example apples, that are too small to smile at you from supermarket shelves, impossibly shining. Why not make it possible for school kitchens with low budgets to get this fruit, perfectly fit for the kids smaller hands, at reduced prices?

Food, that is not fit for human consumption any more, can be used efficiently for animal consumption. Very few of us are aware that only 8% of the grains produced worldwide is done so for human consumption. Most of it goes to feed livestock, which is an insane loss of actual food and also natural resources. Providing a way to connect farmers, food banks and other stakeholders in order to create a more efficient feeding system – along with changing too cautious regulations – can save enormous amounts of resources and may very well be the answer to the problem of feeding the growing population on Earth.

Food that is not fit for any kind of consumption any more, can still be recycled and composted. Today the food ending up in landfill is completely lost. Mixed with other sort of trash, it is not composted, but generates methane while rotting, adding up to an increase in the already significant greenhouse effect. Several startups are targeting this area in the US, creating smarter composting devices and better supply chains between organic waste producers and those who can use the composted material, but there is still much to do.

Catching up with FoodLoop so close to the beginning also gives us insight how you can start really disruptive movements in small steps.
They are concentrating on Catalonia for the moment, where we waste 1.18 ton of food every year, the equivalent of feeding 500 000 people during the same time. (Great overview of data in the Service Jam presentation by Plataforma Aprofitem els Aliments.) In true lean fashion, the food group they started to work with is limited too: fruits and vegetables is the segment least regulated and the one where we waste the most, if we look purely at the weight of produce.

When the idea is validated, it can be scaled step by step, to new food areas and geographical locations. Staying mindful of the importance of local and short-distance connections between suppliers and buyers in order to lessen the carbon footprint of food production even more.

Of course there are challenges when you aim to break such a large system. Sergio and Branislav lists reaching the critical mass, coming over tradition and irrational human fear of change as the first obstacles to overcome. Politics, regulations and subsidies stifling more nimble movements on the free market are going to be another hard bite for the ambitious team if they aim for global change in the food distribution channel, all the way from seed to compost.

As with all real revolutions, there is much to do and a lot of energy to invest. But we have to realize all the positive changes that has already taken place, or as Bono has put it in his inspiring talk on the good news on poverty, we need to believe that we are in fact capable of creating these changes. Which is undeniably also what true startup spirit is all about.

Thanks for help in writing this article to:

Marta Marinee
Branislav Erdélyi
Sergio Correa

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