How can technology improve the efficiency and quality of our global food systems? This is the question the SXSW panel The Tech-Enabled Food Ecosystem of the Future attempted to answer. With reps from tech companies like Google, the panelists shared ways tech and tech companies can help make the world a better place from a food perspective.
The number one problem currently being addressed by many of the major players is food waste. Every day, large quantities of food go into the trash, costing businesses dollars and degrading the environment along the way. Every piece of compostable food becomes nothing more than methane-producing filler in a landfill. Fortunately, there are solutions.
Stephan Kalb founded and runs Shelf Engine, a data-driven startup that believes it can make money while helping to reduce the food waste produced by its customers. The model works like this: A food service company or grocery store hands over all ordering to Shelf Engine. The process of deciding how much food to order is a notoriously fraught one that ultimately ends up being mostly guess work. Shelf Engine believes its algorithms can come a lot closer to choosing the perfect amount of product to buy, thus reducing what gets thrown away. If the process works, they make money, the customer increases profits, and food waste is reduced. Shelf Engine actually guarantees results by only charging clients for what gets sold, essentially buying back anything that’s not. Kalb calls this RaaS, or Results as a Service, his cheeky answer to Saas (Software as a Service).
Using AI to address the problem is a great way to marry tech and the food ecosystem. For Google, it’s an even wider effort. Emily Ma, head of Food for Good at Google, is spearheading several initiatives aimed at making how we procure and consume food more fair, equitable, and efficient. One big problem is the lack of data being shared between players in the space. Often food waste is a matter of different parts of the ecosystem not being able to coordinate as product makes its way through. If everyone from the large farming interests down through the grocery stores and food service companies and eventually to consumers and food reclamation groups could all talk to each other, we wouldn’t have to throw away nearly as much as we do.
Google also does what Google does best and throws code at the problem. During the middle of the worst part of our current pandemic, the need for food pantries was off the charts. Google added a search feature in Maps to “find a food pantry near me” to connect those in need with organizations that can help. This seems like the lowest-hanging fruit that tech companies all over could be doing for various food scarcity and security issues.
Then there’s the fact that Google is just a huge company, with lots of employees spread around the world. The more they can reduce their own food waste, the better, both in practical terms but also as an example to similarly big companies that have cafeterias and food service all their own. In the battle to make food better, everyone has a role, and tech companies can lend their expertise in a variety of ways that benefit us all.