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Earth Day Reflections: Number of Food Waste Startups Rises, Soil Health Needs More Attention

April 21, 2017

Earth Day provides a prime opportunity to reflect on the state of environmental sustainability in the food and agriculture industry. The impact of growing and producing food is relatively well documented, with the meat industry under particular pressure for its greenhouse gas emissions. But what has often been ignored is the impact food loss and food waste has on the environment.

One-third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. Food loss and food waste produce 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, generating four times as much as aviation and about the same amount as road transport.

We wrote about food waste on Earth Day last year, as one startup was trying to help solve the problem by selling imperfect produce, but since then it’s gathered pace as an area of focus for entrepreneurs.

At the Demo Day of Food-X, the New York-based accelerator program, at least three focused on solving food waste — RISE, Wasteless, and FruitCubed — but others mentioned it in their pitches as it’s starting to resonate more with investors.

There is now a host of technologies and solutions targeting nearly every aspect of the food production system, from the vegetable fields to the supermarket shelves. Food waste reduction nonprofit ReFed debuted The Food Waste Innovator Database this week, counting at least 64 startups innovating in the food waste space. The interactive map pinpoints food waste innovators throughout the US and Canada, explaining how each company targets a different food waste pain point along the food production chain. The organization has helped to shine a light on the issue of food waste by producing research and reports on food waste, with a goal to reduce food waste in the US by 20% in 10 years.

In the general news, food waste has also grabbed more attention as local governments, companies, consumers, and entrepreneurs continue to bring awareness to the issue.

Just this week, Sacramento, CA, announced its WasteRight Sacramento initiative, a new program designed to recapture food waste and recycle it into compost or biofuel. As the farm-to-fork capital of the world, the state capital is home to a robust restaurant scene and a bastion of consumers dedicated to supporting sustainable efforts.

In Atlanta, two pairs of Georgia Tech graduates were recently featured for the startups they’ve created that are geared toward reducing food waste. Grubbly Farms, the first pair of Georgia Tech grads are using fly larvae to feed chickens. The bugs, which consume 200% of their body weight, are fed leftover juice pulp and spent brewers’ grains that would otherwise head for the landfill. The second pair of grads launched a startup called Replantable, which makes countertop boxes that grow vegetables and herbs in six weeks using LED lights and water. Instead of buying set amounts of produce at the supermarket, the boxes are designed to let consumers grow what they need when they need it.

It’s great to see so much more attention to the food waste problem, and long may that continue, but there are other environmental issues related to the food and agriculture industry that also need more engagement.

Soil health is one area that we hope will grab more entrepreneur, investor and general attention over the next year. Bill Buckner, CEO of Noble Foundation, told us recently: “In comparison to its importance, we have mostly ignored soil for centuries,” largely because it “took a backseat to plant science.”

There are signs that the tide is turning, very slowly.

Yesterday, leaders from General Mills, The Nature Conservancy, the Soil Health Institute, and the Soil Health Partnership announced a collaborative effort to advance soil health on America’s farms and ranches. Promoting soil health offers a bevy of potential benefits, including boosting environmental health, increasing harvest yields, and ensuring the productivity of America’s farmland for future generations.

For the last 80 years or so, most ag biotech research has focused on plant science and genetics to help farmers increase their yields with optimized crop varieties and accompanying inputs. Today, there’s a small but growing group of ag biotech startups focusing on the environment in which crops are grown, namely the soil and the soil microbiome.

In January 2017, Land Life Company, a startup hoping to regenerate degraded soil, closed a $2.58 million Series A. The startup’s primary product, Cocoon, is a low-cost, biodegradable product in which trees can grow autonomously without irrigation.

And in March 2017, Cool Planet, the biofuel-turned-biological ag products company, raised $19.3 million in venture funding from existing investors to drive the commercialization of its first products.

As Buckner says: “Now, we have to think about how to make soil relevant again and start a new soil-based revolution. Scientists often tell us that our understanding is so far out, as well as the timelines for soil improvement so distant, that it will be difficult to raise capital for research.”

That’s exactly why Buckner and the Noble Foundation launched the Soil Health Institute in 2013. It’s currently working on a number of endeavors, including developing a baseline definition and standard for soil health that can facilitate benchmarking.

Buckner also sees agtech playing a key role in putting soil health awareness on the map.

The Soil Health Institute is planning to release an Action Plan to strategically guide investments in soil health to address gaps that are most pressing and that will provide the greatest benefits.

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