Photograph courtesy of USDA
Photograph courtesy of USDA

Earth Day: Curbing Food Waste

Unless you work for an environmental conservation group or have an elementary-school age child, Earth Day yesterday may have passed for you like so many Flag and Arbor Days before it.

But consider that the year’s hottest food issue and tech entrepreneur breeding ground is also one of our great global ecological challenges: Food Waste.

Curbing food waste comes naturally to chefs, who employ every part of vegetables and animals in creating menus and will create “specials” to prevent food from going unused, to increase restaurants’ razor-thin profit margins. A chef who is creative with spare food parts cuts down on waste and is often the difference between an eatery thriving or going under. (See “How Cities Compost Mountains of Food Waste“)

But most home cooks, even ones on a budget, do not automatically and with great savvy butcher their own chickens and turn leftover carcasses, along with unused carrot tops and parsley stems, into cooking stock. Even the most enthusiastic cooks I know (I’m talking to you, spectacular baker Jasmine Wiggins) don’t have walk-in refrigerators, and everyone ends up with the past-date yogurt or piece of stinky cheese that wasn’t supposed to be stinky. It’s problematic, because even with the surge in restaurant dining, most of our food is stored at home.

Enter food technology and entrepreneurism, which envision your kitchen appliances as part of your wholly connected life. Your kitchen is the new frontier for the Internet of Things, the in-vogue phrase identifying that more things (cell phones, alarm systems, oil refineries) are now connected to the Internet–and are communicating with other–than are people.

“Can I ‘friend’ my fridge?”

In January LG introduced a refrigerator that recommends dinner recipes based on what you have on hand; you can even text your fridge from the office to see if the milk is spoiled. (Let 2014 also be known as the year it became acceptable to talk to your appliances. Can I “friend” my fridge?) But the refrigerator requires the user to input and delete each food item as it goes in or out, which has potential to create such tech fatigue it makes me want to put my head in the Smart Oven (which would probably then turn itself off when it detected “head”).

But what if the Internet of Things employed ubiquitous tiny sensors embedded in the refrigerator to detect what goes in with no user action required? The White House recently convened a group of corporations to create engineering standards so that all machines and sensors can work together and eventually connect all things, data, and people together. In your home, it means that your refrigerator can inform you when it’s low on milk and when the milk is going bad. (See “365 Trillion Gallons of Water Thrown Away With Our Food Every Year“)

Late last year General Electric in a brainstorming session envisioned such an appliance in the Home of 2025, which could also be accessed from outside of the house so a grocery delivery could occur without anyone home. And a complete inventory–along with expiration dates–would be available to the homeowner immediately as the refrigerator communicates with, say, a smart phone.

Food Waste: Are Expiration Dates Part of the Problem?

But such dependence on technology and expiration and use-by dates, which are actually fairly arbitrary, may alienate us further from our biological instincts about and innate knowledge of food. The fewer cartons of milk we sniff to see if they’re still OK, and the more we rely on sensors and our phones to tell us when food is dangerous, the more removed we become from our food. Our senses were developed to detect poison in the wild. We’re still here. I think we can tell when milk has gone bad.

Consider the next step, a refrigerator that detects that your milk is about to spoil and independently contacts your grocery store’s computer, which automatically sends you milk. Maybe your refrigerator is hooked up to your phone’s calendar so it knows if you’re going on vacation and don’t need milk and therefore will stop the order. This might be another nail in the coffin of the dying grocery store (more on that in another post) and a dangerous increasing divide between the technology haves and have-nots. Where do tech have-nots shop if grocery store infrastructure pares down?

The rage–of both the trend and anger kind–over food waste culminated in a 2013 report by the new Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the National Resources Defense Council that received coverage to rival Kate Middleton. Confusion over the use by/sell by/expiration dating system on food in grocery stores–and that the dates have little to do with food safety–leads to food waste and is costing $165 billion per year just to Americans. That’s up to 40 percent of our food system that could healthily and deliciously feed people. To prove it, this summer former Trader Joe’s President Doug Rauch will open The Daily Table, a store and restaurant in Dorchester, Massachusetts that sells primarily food that would otherwise be headed for compost or trash. And high-end environmental foodies can’t wait to get a taste.

The smart refrigerator that texts a recipe based on almost-spoiled ingredients is akin to Rauch and The Daily Table, just on a micro, home level. And the smart refrigerator’s recipe would actually begin to address our planet’s huge food waste problem by helping the home cook think like a chef: create a “special” and not waste food, by using it immediately. And when good food isn’t wasted, we can start thinking about what to do with the surplus. How about feeding seven billion people?

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.