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Product, Service & Design Innovation
How Circularity, AI Are Mending Cracks in Our Fractured Food System

Naturally, food and its many issues has been a major topic this week at SB’23 San Diego. Here, two panels of innovators share their approaches to filling in systemic gaps in our food system.

Redirecting would-be food waste to nourish communities

L-R: Whitney Dailey (moderator), Jordan Schenck, Lara Ramdin

A Monday afternoon workshop showcased different approaches to tackle the global food waste crisis. In the nonprofit sphere, Food Forward and ReFED both provide impactful but very different solutions. Food Forward emerged from straightforward narrative when founder Rick Nahmias noticed perfectly good fruit from residential trees going to waste in his neighborhood; and this simple observation sparked the birth of a nonprofit that has since evolved into a large-scale operation — bridging the gap between suppliers with surplus produce and smaller food pantries to ensure perfectly good, yet somehow unsellable, nutrition reaches those in need. Food Forward’s hands-on model is deeply ingrained in a humble recognition and dedication to stick to doing what they know how to do best — a formula that Nahmias said has been the cornerstone of its continued success. He emphasized the tangible connection between picking fruit and the immediate impact on individuals' nutrition. The hands-on, analog nature of this experience “provides a unique and inclusive way to address food loss and mitigation, offering distinct advantages over many other environmental causes.”

In the same vein, ReFED has been a consistent and invaluable source of data-driven insights and tools for stakeholders committed to instigating change. As VP of Capital, Innovation, & Engagement Alexandria Coari explained, the nonprofit aims to support organizations with “boots on the ground” by providing three key things: knowledge, network and capital. While its historical approach centered on responding to business requests, ReFED is responding to the need to accelerate the progress in solving food waste with proactive business engagement to create tailored waste-reduction plans.

In the realm of startups, Lara Ramdin — Chief Innovation & Science Officer at Upcycled Foods, Inc — brings a rich background from her experience at major corporations including Dole. With this contrast, Ramdin’s experience as a one-woman R&D team at Upcycled Foods (parent company of ReGrained) demonstrates the advantages that startups have to address key sustainability issues — such as being able to have a niche focus on a specific issue, out-of-the-box thinking coupled with agility for rapid prototyping.

Jordan Schenck, Chief Brand Officer at Flashfood Inc — who previously worked with several startups — emphasized the importance of maintaining a connection to your original audience to remember the reasons behind their loyalty to your brand. In driving consumer engagement, Schenck described the strategy of cultivating a formula to evoke a sense of urgency and action for customers to seize the opportunity to purchase still-perfectly-good food through the app while concurrently increasing the effectiveness of our collective efforts to combat food waste.

Could AI bring about the true transformation needed in food and ag?

Mineral's AI-powered rovers have helped the company generate a massive database of plant images and data | Image credit: Mineral

The growth in the utilization of artificial intelligence (AI) in business is nothing short of remarkable, as companies increasingly recognize its potential to enhance efficiency and gain a competitive edge. With global AI spending reaching new heights, its use is not limited to tech companies — industries including healthcare, finance, retail and manufacturing are also rapidly adopting AI technologies. For instance, the global AI in healthcare market is expected to reach $51.3 billion by 2027, growing at more than 40 percent a year from 2020.

In a recent PwC survey, 54 percent of business executives said that AI has already increased productivity in their organization. And according to McKinsey, AI can lead to cost reductions of 20-30 percent in call center and support operations.

So, what could AI do for the food and agriculture industries? Are AI-powered solutions tailored to the sector capable of bringing about the transformation needed to alleviate the growing pressure on our food systems?

It was these questions posed at the “AI Cultivators” session on Day 2 here at SB’23 San Diego. Moderator Ethan Soloviev, Chief Innovation Officer at HowGood, was joined by three innovators finding much value in AI tech.

Dr. Anastasia Volkova is CEO and co-founder of Regrow Ag — which helps decarbonize agricultural supply chains by aiding large food companies with their Scope 3 emissions measurement and prioritizing investment in regenerative agriculture to benefit farmers and boost climate resilience. Megan Fallon is the Marketing Lead at Mineral — a startup “reimagining food production systems using AI and robotics to protect the planet and produce food in more sustainable way.” And Zachary Damato is VP of Growth at Journey Foods — a portfolio of intelligence and lifecycle-management software for food development and innovation.

Soloviev, whose HowGood is a research company and software-as-a-service data platform with the world’s largest database on food product sustainability, asked his fellow panelists to highlight the latest trends that are driving their startups.

For Fallon, using AI presents an opportunity to turn the food sector on its head.

“For the last 50 years, across agriculture, the heavier and tougher equipment is what wins. We believe AI gives us more brain power, so that won’t necessarily be the case in the future,” she told the audience. “And there is real appetite from companies – whether they are agricultural input companies or OEMs – who are really starting to think about how they can target each plant and be precise in how it is grown, rather than using large-scale applications that can be harmful to the environment and reduce farmer profits.”

Damato is excited by the accessibility of AI: “Access is the biggest trend. Small teams can now access data that enables them to be competitive with larger companies, especially in the CPG space.”

Soloviev agreed, explaining how food companies no longer have to employ expensive lifecycle-assessment expertise — what was really tough can now be done in the space of six months, he said.

As the conversation continued, Soloviev was keen to understand the transformation potential of AI technology — not simply its ability to boost efficiency. Presenting a new framework to help the audience think about the impact of AI, Soloviev asked where the examples of AI are that reach what he calls “Level 3” with the ability of “regenerating life:” “What if we could predict exactly where deforestation was going to happen before it actually did?”

Transformation is all well and good; but as Fallon pointed out, “Unless farmers see profitability increase, we’re going to have a hard time seeing the scaling up of AI that makes the environment better.” Mineral is currently working with a food grower to make better berries, helping to forecast yields and help quality inspectors. “We are going from a human level of subjectiveness to combining AI and the human eye to inspect berries. This is hugely minimizing waste and improving farm profitability.”

Damato sees the potential for transformation because suppliers in the Southern hemisphere — which don’t traditionally have modernized systems — can access technology that will help with their profitability and ability to increase resilience in the face of climate change.

The panelists wrapped up by pondering the future of AI use. Fallon urged the need for education and caution around AI and its potential.

“Do we want to create a ‘Terminator’ world, or an ‘Iron Man’ world? Do we want disruption for disruption’s sake? The important thing is that we cannot take the human element out of decision making.”

Volkova says she’d like to see AI being used to inform our eating habits. “Precision nutrition could enable us to understand which foods actually work for us so that we can be productive and healthy throughout the day.”

As with AI use in many sectors, it is still early days. But watch this space as Mineral, Journey Foods, HowGood and Regrow Ag plot their future to transform the food sector for good.

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