On the way to feeding the world, the makers of our favorite foods and drinks incur a $2.8 trillion loss — that is, the value of food it sends to the landfill each year. Depending on whom you ask, it is either a golden opportunity for scientists and engineers, or a problem too big to easily untangle.
By Marc Lefkowitz, SWE Contributor
The food industry has a lot on its plate these days. According to the United Nations, one-third of all crops grown and food processed are thrown away each year. In the U.S. alone, 80 billion pounds of food enters landfills per year. That equates to about 220 pounds of food waste per person. With landfilled food producing around 11% of the greenhouse gas emissions and 54 million Americans suffering from food insecurity, it is a problem with environmental and social implications.
The situation is a little like the old, distasteful joke that goes, “How do you eat an elephant?” The punchline — one bite at a time — describes the patchwork approach that has sprouted up.
Upcycling to avoid food waste
Finding new uses for food before it becomes waste has a long track record. By-products such as parts of animals and food that no longer meets standards for human consumption are redirected into the production of pet food and animal feed. But, the annual 1.1 billion pounds of upcycled food in the United States that ends up as pet and animal feed is a drop in the bucket next to what production facilities, grocery stores, restaurants, and homes send to the landfill.
The situation is also driving companies and food scientists to figure out solutions. For publicly held companies, some of whom represent the world’s largest brands, such as Walmart and Conagra, investor interest in sustainability is driving discussions around changing direction.
“Conversations are being had so that food companies can have more of an understanding of upcycling food,” said Jen Luchte, sustainability director for the International Ingredient Corporation (IIC), a family-owned business that takes food by-products from farmers to make the ingredients that go into animal feed and pet foods.
“Most companies don’t like to admit that they create food waste,” she added. “It brings up something they don’t like to talk about.”
Another sticking point: The majority of food processors are small or midsize and privately held. They are not moved by investor pressure or compelled to report on what gets thrown out. That has led to a holding pattern, Luchte says. How long these firms can stand on the sidelines may be determined by customer awareness.
“Consumers are driving a lot of the desire for upcycled ingredients,” Luchte said. “Companies could be getting credit in their sustainability bottom lines. Just think about the energy and water that goes into growing those products.”
IIC’s core business is redirecting cheese, sugar, and parts of animals like organs that are rendered into ingredients for animal feed and pet food. The upward pressure from consumers who demand more upcycled ingredients from food producers has led to big brands like Conagra to refocus efforts. The company reported a 90% food waste diversion rate in the production of its Evol frozen foods line, in addition to offsetting the carbon from its production (while adding a carbon neutral label). The hope, says Luchte, who is a member of the industry’s sustainability consortium, is for the large multinationals to influence their supply chains.
Indeed, the list of food companies that are acting to reduce food loss continues to grow, according to industry watchdog World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Though, in its report on the sustainability efforts within the food processing industry, WBCSD noted the lack of a cohesive strategy in taking on the mountains of food waste.
The social impact of all those calories lost extends to billions of people globally who lack proper daily nutrition. The situation was the focus of the UN Food Systems Summit held in 2021. It called for action to end world hunger by 2030. In the compendium to the summit, Joachim von Braun, Ph.D., chair of the Scientific Group of the UNFSS, wrote that science has a key role to play in unlocking innovation and spurring private industry to invest in improving.
Sowing the Seeds of Food Science
For Qing Jin, Ph.D., food provides a special bond within families. Her parents were trained as engineers and encouraged their daughter to pursue engineering studies in China and at Virginia Tech, where her research has led to discovering new uses for spent grapes from winemaking.
“Families get together and cook and share,” she said. “That sparked my interest in food. I didn’t know it at the time, until I got a chance to select my major (food science at China’s Ag University). It was interdisciplinary, with biology and chemistry. You learn the basic principles of the food industry and nutrition and how to do research.”
Eventually, Dr. Jin moved to the U.S. to continue her studies with Haibo Huang, Ph.D., associate professor, food science and technology department at Virginia Tech, analyzing the chemical composition of wine and fruit, finding the active compounds in those foods.
“I got into the interdisciplinary aspect during my Ph.D. studies of what are related problems and how to connect food, water, and sustainability,” she said. “From that program, I found another solution for treating wastewater. At that time, I was working on pomace (spent grapes), and thought, ‘If I can use this waste product to produce biochar to treat heavy metal contaminated drinking water, we could have purified water (from waste).’”
Sustainability in the food processing industry is “heavily populated by women,” observes Lara Moody, executive director of IFEEDER, the Institute for Feed Education and Research, and an agricultural engineer. Moody posits, the combination of analytical and systems-based approaches plays to the strengths of women.
“There’s something about the holistic nature of sustainability that is appealing to women,” she said. “The best thing my (engineering) degree taught me is critical thinking skills. You have to keep asking questions and the end is somewhat infinity.”
Yanhong He, Ph.D., also studied under Dr. Huang at VT and felt the influence of food and family. She observes that food played a role in her career path that can be traced to her parents, who are farmers, and her uncles, who operate a food business in China, to VT to Cornell University where, as a postdoctoral researcher, she is finding new uses for spent grain from beer making.
“Food is a very important topic, because we need to eat every day,” she said. “My parents had a limited education, but were very supportive of me gaining a lot of knowledge. At Virginia Tech, I gained skills that I can apply to questions of the environment.”
Likewise, the interdisciplinary aspect of food and sustainability drew Jess Vieira, Ph.D., who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Tufts University, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara School of Environmental Science and Management, to the field. Dr. Vieira’s parents, particularly her mother, with a background in finance and accounting, encouraged her to pursue engineering. She also credits a presentation from the nonprofit aid group Engineers Without Borders for expanding her view of what engineers are capable of achieving, leading to a concentration in environmental engineering.
“I can’t say that when I applied for engineering school that I knew what engineers did,” Dr. Vieira said with a laugh. “I was always much more interested and better at the math and science areas in school. It stemmed from a natural problem-solving mentality and a systems thinking view of the world.”
A course focused on corporate environmental management set off a spark that led to her bringing engineering and sustainability together.
“What got me excited was the thought, ‘If you can make a small change, with the resources these organizations have, the trickle down would be huge.’”
Armed with that knowledge and her degree, Dr. Vieira donned a pair of dress heels and walked into the exhibit hall of the 2011 Society of Women Engineers’ annual conference in the hope of landing a job.
“The (SWE) career fair is incredibly impressive,” she said. “I felt like every major company was there. A captive audience for people like me.”
Moody, at the feed association, agrees that career opportunities are opening up for sustainability directors and engineers in the food industry.
“I think if I was 20 years old again looking at my career potential,” she said, “I would get certified on GRI (Global Reporting Initiative, a corporate sustainability framework based in the Netherlands) and in the sustainability space. A lot of it is about mass balances, which is everything in engineering.”
From the SWE career fair, Dr. Vieira was taken to lunch by a vice president from Dow Chemical and, unbeknownst to her, was interviewed for her first job. “It was an amazing experience for me to understand the scale of what a company like Dow is capable of,” Dr. Vieira remarked.
Now working for Apeel, a small tech company in the food space, has opened her eyes to how all encompassing sustainability is as a driver of business. As the company’s sustainability director, Dr. Vieira works with product engineers on the life cycle analysis of their flagship food-grade coating that buys time for food processors and their customers.
“We work with the tech team to validate the performance and that we are seeing these positive outcomes,” she explained, “so that by the time we reach market, we know the product cost is outweighed by a strong sustainability outcome.”
“I want to have a positive impact on the world,” she said. “There are a lot of big problems to solve through science.”
Exploring the science behind agricultural by-products as new products is a focus of Qing Jin, Ph.D., and Yanhong He, Ph.D., postdoctoral associates with the department of food science and technology, Virginia Tech and Cornell University, respectively, who have gained recognition for their work on waste material utilization.
Dr. He’s doctoral research at Virginia Tech focused on reusing spent grain from beer, separating it into component parts. She formulated a digestible protein as an ingredient to be added in the feed for farmed shrimp, and worked on a separation process for the fiber to produce manganese, a compound that is distilled into a solvent. Since joining Cornell, she has started a research project that converts seashells from the food industry into animal feed.
“Cornell has a program that combines technology developed in a lab with industrial uses,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity for people to know that the research we’re doing in the lab is important to industry.”
The data from waste material utilization, she added, will provide societal benefits.
“We can provide the data to show that a certain material has (reuse) potential,” Dr. He said. “You need to show the data and a public need. Around the world, we can show which lab is doing this and attract companies to work with us.”
Dr. Jin’s research is in separating pomace, macerated wine grapes. She produced a biochar that acts as a filter for wastewater and a soil amendment for farmers.
“My ideal goal is that I close the loop and make it a circular economy,” she said. “Based on the composition of the original materials, extraction at different temperatures and different times maximizes the efficiency, for example, of the polyphenol yield. We can recover these valuable compounds cost effectively and have no solid waste left.”
Drs. Jin and He learned about food waste utilization in the cross-disciplinary program in Virginia Tech’s food science and technology program led by Haibo Huang, Ph.D., whose research on spent grain from beer produced a protein-rich feed for farmed shrimp.
Dr. Huang confirms Dr. Jin’s comment about composition — that not all food waste is the same. Factors such as location, season, and underlying structure add to the complexity of extracting the highest potential food waste. But, Dr. Huang says there are common elements stored in food, like carbon, that can be captured before it releases to the environment as a waste product with global warming consequences.
“We can process this carbon into fuels, biofuels, or renewable chemicals to produce materials,” he said, adding that private industry is seeking out his lab to work on these conversions. Other research areas with broad applicability include fiber-derived carbon materials from spent beer grain.
“We can control the functional surface of properties of fiber-derived carbon materials to store and release sodium ions to be part of a battery,” said Dr. Huang, who has published research in this area. “This material is left over from brewer’s spent grain. It is usually sold at a low price or given to local farmers for feeding cattle. If there aren’t enough farmers, they send it to the landfill, and it costs a lot of money to do so. So, there is a big move to see what can be done with spent grain.”
On a similar track, participants at the UN Summit were asked to crowdsource action steps, including research that will increase the nutrient density of food. It is an action that the private sector can be involved with, says Katie Barry, Ph.D., a food scientist with Greenfield Solutions (GFS), one of IIC’s subsidiaries.
“By using by-products, we reduce the cost of feed, and that has a huge impact on the cost in the supply chain for animal proteins,” said Dr. Barry, who formulates ingredients in the GFS lab in St. Louis. “If we can reduce the cost for those proteins, farmers will be able to raise more animals. That is important for small (land) holders because resources are so limited.”
A patchwork of solutions amid calls for more research
Meanwhile, firms in global markets are being tasked with leveling up to food waste reduction goals, such as those adopted by the European Union in its Green Deal, says Jess Vieira, Ph.D., an environmental engineer and director of sustainability for Apeel, a Santa Barbara-based company that invented a clear, food-based coating that slows the decomposition of fruit and vegetables such as avocados and oranges.
Steady progress has been charted since the first global study quantifying one-third of all food produced goes to waste, she added.
“That study opened a lot of eyes to the size of the problem,” Dr. Vieira said. “It has created tailwinds for our business.”
Unlike debates over the environmental impact of plant-based versus animal protein, Dr. Vieira insists that few in the food industry stand opposed to acting on food waste.
“There are deep-rooted incentive structures in the supply chain that are challenging, but it’s not as polarizing or to the point where you see lobbying against it,” she said. “When you put it into economic terms, the $2.8 trillion that it costs our economy is a pretty good business opportunity.”
The food industry may eventually move toward a common framework that includes a target reduction in food waste, says Lara Moody, executive director of the Institute for Feed Education and Research (IFEEDER), a Washington, D.C.-based trade association for the feed industry. But, she adds, it will take a long time to gather data on where and how food is not being used and then come up with a set of solutions.
“(Publicly held) multinationals are having to set science-based targets that their boards and financial indices are requiring them to meet,” said Moody, adding that only 10% of the feed industry’s 600 members are publicly held companies.
“One of the growing trends is life cycle analysis (LCA), or understanding the impact of sources and products on water and energy,” added Moody, who holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering and a master’s in biosystems engineering. “We’re in the process of building a database, but the challenge is there are a lot of ingredients. There’s a lot to be done in food waste.”
Life cycle analysis is a growth area for private companies that are forming sustainability plans. Apeel, for example, is building profiles on the spoilage rates for individual fruits and vegetables. Its coating has prevented 42 million pieces of produce from going to waste, Dr. Vieira said. Apeel is applying science to the problem.
“We’re not trying to reprocess something. We’re trying to prevent food waste from happening in the first place,” she said. “Today, we primarily measure that impact in retail stores. We have seen our flagship product for avocados in North America and Europe average a 50% reduction (in spoilage). The big opportunity for us is to understand what is going on in consumers’ homes.”
For its part, Northern California-based food management firm Bon Appétit Management Co. takes a multifaceted approach to sustainability that includes a long-standing goal to purchase locally grown food and reduce food waste. Bon Appétit developed an app, Waste Not, and ran a pilot to track food waste. The app will eventually be adopted into its corporate family of food management firms, the Compass Group, the sixth-largest food management firm in the U.S., says Maisie Ganzler, chief strategy and brand officer for Bon Appétit.
“We were really focused on what was going to change behavior in order to make waste reduction,” said Ganzler. “We discovered why something was being wasted was more important” than how much.
Initially, Bon Appétit tracked where in its operation food waste happens. It led to “aha moments,” for example, rooting out lettuce that was routinely ordered, not used, and thrown out at one of its college cafes. The app has allowed cafe operators to divert food from the landfill through donations to local food shelters or by paying for composting companies to pick it up.
It has also led the company to set a goal to reduce food waste by 50%, a target that Ganzler is confident they will reach. She credits a corporate culture that encourages innovation along with a deeply held value to protect the environment.
“We don’t really talk about food waste so much as cost savings,” Ganzler said, “though it is an element of our dream and who we are fundamentally as a company.”
Luchte, at IIC, which processes some 40,000 pounds a month in sugars and candies alone, says the rise of groups serving in educational roles, such as the Upcycled Food Association and ReFED, an organization that conducted baseline analysis for food waste and which holds a food waste conference every May, is a sign of a maturing industry. Her cohort, Dr. Barry, agrees with the UN assessment — that more research is needed.
“Science is a critical part of how we solve food waste problems,” Dr. Barry concluded. “When we’re looking at taking something from the source point to feeding people or animals, we need creative, science-based solutions. Whether it’s taking leftovers from soy milk to make soy flour or taking milk and cheese to reprocess for animal feed, the science behind them is important.”