Using artificial intelligence to tackle food waste

The Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2) of the United Nations aims at creating a world that is hunger-free by 2030. In order to keep up with the food demand, food production needs to be 60% greater by the year 2050 compared to the food production in 2005/2007. The goal of food security must be a multidimensional approach that not only involves safeguarding safe and nutritious food but also tackling the problem of food waste. Reducing food waste may be a suitable resource conservation approach and can help meet future food demand with only a smaller rise in agricultural output. Tackling the problem of food waste can significantly enhance food security on a global scale and reduce the adverse environmental effects of agriculture.

Wastage of food is a global problem. Statistics from the Food and Agricultural Organization show that nearly one-third or 1.3 billion tonnes of food produced for consumption is wasted or lost, costing the global economy USD 936 billion annually. The United Nations Food Waste Index Report shows that each year, 79 kg of food per person, on average, is lost in high-income countries. Wasted food also contributes to about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, thus impacting the environment and ecosystem adversely. Apart from this, wastage and loss of food cause food poverty and food price volatility, thus resulting in social and economic impacts. Hence, to enhance food security and reduce the adverse impact of agriculture on the environment, it is imperative to cut down on the wastage of food.

The UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021 estimates that out of the 931 million tonnes of food discarded each year, 569 million tonnes are wasted by households, 244 million tonnes by food service establishments and 118 million tonnes by the retail sector. These figures emphasise the need for innovative solutions to tackle the problem of food waste.

The problem of food wastage can be tackled using the circular economy concept. A circular economy is an approach to the efficient use of resources. Unlike the conventional linear economy that produces, consumes and discards, the circular economy focuses on the 3Rs, which stand for reduce, reuse, and recycle. The circular economy concept can be applied to different stages, such as food production, consumption, and waste and surplus management. Artificial intelligence (AI) can support circular economy initiatives and be used to address the problem of food waste by altering food systems and changing the patterns of production and distribution of food. AI aids in the following ways:

Monitoring food production

: AI can analyse data on weather patterns and monitor crop yield and consumer demand to ensure precision agriculture and optimal food production. AI can monitor the weather, predict droughts and floods, and optimise irrigation and pesticide/herbicide applications, thus impacting crop yield.

Optimising supply chains

: AI can also minimise waste throughout a supply chain by predicting customer demand, optimising inventory management and reducing overproduction. AI-driven inventory systems can optimise stock levels and improve supply chain efficiency, thus reducing waste.

Monitoring food quality

: Food quality can be impacted negatively by interruptions in the refrigeration chain, contamination of transport containers, and incorrect storage. AI monitors food quality in terms of the expiration dates and storage conditions in real time to facilitate proactive measures to prevent waste.

Food redistribution

: Using AI in food redistribution has the following benefits: AI can identify food surplus and connect with organisations that can redistribute the excess food; AI can make recommendations that ensure food is distributed in the right quantities to areas that need it the most, thereby reducing the wastage of food; AI can help improve the efficiency of food distribution systems using algorithms to analyse data on supply and demand, and AI can also be used in food nutrition estimation.

Consumer awareness

: AI-powered apps can offer tips on meal planning, storage and ways to minimise wastage of food at home.

With food waste becoming a global issue with social, environmental and economic impacts, it becomes imperative for the entire world to implement the circular economy to support the waste reduction, recycling and redistribution of food. The application of AI in the food industry will play a crucial role in supporting the circular economy in the future. Thus, continued investment in AI can fully support the circular economy and reduce food wastage in the world and, in turn, aid in achieving SDG 2.