"Globally, if food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the U.S."
This quote from the United Nations’ Food Waste Footprint study is shocking, and not just because “Food Waste” sounds like the worst country in the world. Although the environmental effects remain largely invisible in everyday life, the global emissions from food waste are more than double the emissions of all road traffic in the U.S. combined. In this week’s blog, we will be taking a look at the energy requirements and carbon footprint of the food we never eat.
To understand this problem completely, we have to examine the full life cycle of food. When a fruit or vegetable ends up in a landfill, all of the resources that went into growing that fruit or vegetable are squandered. If you add up the emissions from the tractor plowing the field, the fertilizer used to accelerate growth, and the truck that ships the vegetable to the store, you can begin to see how each step compounds to reach a level of global carbon output similar in size to our entire nation’s carbon footprint.
In recent years, the renewable energy sector has released new innovations in leaps and bounds that make it easier for us to source clean energy from the sun, wind, and water. However, as we continue to focus on energy production, it is equally important to look at energy waste. If your energy bill spikes at home, you should check for leaks in your insulation before shelling out for a brand-new furnace. The same goes for energy losses in our food systems.
Case Study: The Tropical Rain Forest
Tropical rainforests are one of the best conservers of energy on the planet. Tropical plants have evolved to use every ray of sunlight available as efficiently as possible. At the highest level of the forest, tall trees spread their branches as wide as possible to create a 6-meter-thick canopy that absorbs almost all of the sunlight available.
The next layer, the understory, is darker and more humid. Plants in the understory grow larger leaves that absorb any sunlight that makes it though the canopy.
By the time we get to the forest floor, only 2% of the total sunlight is still available. This makes it incredibly difficult for many plants to grow. However, since it is cool and damp, the forest floor is a perfect environment for decomposers like termites and slugs. Fallen leaves break down extremely quickly on the forest floor, rapidly reverting to fuel for the plant life above.
At the end of the day, almost 100% of the energy input of the rainforest system is used. Wasted energy is essentially nonexistent.
The farther a piece a fruit or vegetable makes along the supply chain, the higher the impact of its waste. Each step taken to get food product onto your plate -- production, processing, distribution, and consumption -- has unique energy needs. At each successive step, these energy needs add up. An apple wasted at home has a greater impact than an apple wasted on the farm.
In the case study above, I described how different plants and processes have adapted to use the energy available at each level of the forest canopy. At the 2050 Company, we aim to emulate this same solution to reduce waste in our supply chain. Distinct solutions are needed to reduce waste on farms, in transit, on store shelves, and in homes.
By prioritizing upcycled ingredients, we first limit the waste at its source at farms and distributors.
By drying this produce and grinding it into a powder, we reduce both its weight and volume by up to 80%, dramatically reducing the energy needed to transport our products to customers.
Since it requires no refrigeration, no electricity is needed to store it in stores or at home. And since the 2050 Smoothie stays fresh for up to 2 years, we greatly reduce the chance of it being wasted at the end of the supply chain where the impact would be the highest.
There is one truth that drives life in the rainforest: energy is everything. At the 2050 Company, we recognize that this idea applies just as easily to human-made societies and food systems. At every level of the production, distribution, and consumption of our products, we aim to conserve energy with the hope of someday approaching the fine-tuned efficiency of a tropical rainforest.
If you’re interested in reading about a really cool solution connecting food waste and energy production, check out AuREUS. They’ve found a way to transform food waste into a new generation of solar panels that function by the same principle as the aurora borealis.