Tina Nguyen and Tom Idle
Published 1 month ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: Food Forward
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.
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
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.
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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.
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
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
growing at more than 40 percent a year from 2020.
In a recent PwC
54 percent of business executives said that AI has already increased
productivity in their organization. And according to
AI can lead to cost reductions of 20-30 percent in call center and support
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
to benefit farmers and boost climate
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
Soloviev, whose HowGood is a research company and software-as-a-service data
platform with the world’s largest database on food product
asked his fellow panelists to highlight the latest trends that are driving their
For Fallon, using AI presents an opportunity to turn the food sector on its
“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.
Published Oct 19, 2023 11am EDT / 8am PDT / 4pm BST / 5pm CEST
Tina is a sustainability consultant with EcoNomics, Inc. She is a longtime surfer who is passionate about the world of waste.
Content creator extraordinaire.