In our latest Beyond Data podcast ‘Global Food Waste – Can AI Offer a Solution?’, we invited Data Science leader Shawn Ramirez to help us explore the global issue of food waste and discuss how AI has the power to make a difference. Co-hosts Sophie Chase Borthwick (our Data Ethics & Governance Lead) and Tessa Jones (our VP of Data Science, Research & Development) steered Shawn to share her insight and examples of where AI is helping combat this prevalent ‘human’ problem. Here we explore some of the episode’s highlights. 

What a waste… 

To say global food waste is a huge problem seems like an understatement. Nearly one third of all food around the world is currently being wasted. Estimates also suggest that 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions are associated with food that’s not consumed. In Shawn’s own words, there are some stark facts that are hard to ignore:  

“In the United States about 40% of food is wasted while, at the same time, 40 million people in the US are suffering from hunger, including 12 million children. If we could reduce and redistribute food waste by 15%, we’d actually feed more than half of those hungry people.  And it’s a similar story in Europe where 153 million tons of food is being wasted.” 

Not just about hunger… 

In addition to hunger, food waste is directly connected to all kinds of additional concerns – such as resource conservation, carbon emissions, and climate change. Clearly hugely passionate about the subject, Shawn explains why we all need to commit to change.   

“With our rising population, the situation is only going to get worse and, if we could reduce or redistribute that food waste, we could have a massive global impact.” 

Where is it happening? 

In the US, 60% of food is wasted before it even reaches the consumer. In Europe, 55% to 60% occurs in consumer households. Whereas in developing countries, most waste happens during agricultural production. Where you are in the world’s supply chains can make a big difference. 

What part can AI play? 

It’s increasingly clear that AI can and is starting to play an important role in turning the tide on food wastage. Exciting hi-tech innovations are enabling more sustainable farming – such as AI-enabled monitors, computer vision, remote sensing, as well as robots. Shawn highlights how this technology is revolutionizing vertical farming. 

“We are now seeing single vertical farms that produce the same amount of fruit and vegetables as an 80-acre farm and they are using 97% less water.”   

A Swedish company is transforming disused office buildings into autonomously controlled greenhouses and a company in Singapore has created the world’s first low carbon hydraulic water-driven vertical farming system.  

Throughout the supply chain, AI is becoming an indispensable planning tool. And Shawn has seen this first-hand, thanks to her time at Shelf Engine – an end-to-end grocery ordering solution using advanced AI. 

“We worked with grocery stores, using inventory simulations to optimize the freshness of food by predicting customer demand…Connecting data across the supply chain facilitates better informed decisions.”   

Knowledge is power

Then there’s a need for efficient and effective monitoring of what’s actually being wasted – something AI now has the capability of doing in granular detail. 

“AI-powered garbage cans equipped with weight sensors, cameras and computer vision have the ability to recognize and track the amount and type of food we’re throwing away.”  

As well as in the home, these can be used in restaurants, hotels, and other businesses – enabling people to think carefully about their waste, while helping companies effectively monitor and understand what’s being thrown away and when.   

You may have heard of Ikea partnering with Winnow Vision AI to track kitchen waste using computer vision technologies. Well, Ikea then used this data to implement changes resulting in a saving of 20 million meals. That amounted to 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide.  

Food for thought

The US Department of Agriculture has set a target of reducing food waste by 10% within the next decade. To achieve this, Shawn believes education in the capability of AI is the next vital step. 

“We want to see more organizations thinking about the food that they waste and realizing how they can make a massive difference by adopting different AI technologies.” 

To hear more of our valuable discussion on how AI has the power to reduce food waste, tune in to our latest Beyond Data podcast episode now.