Food Waste: A New Investment Frontier

By Logan Yonavjak

If you haven’t heard the stats on food waste, they are staggering. According to a 2016 report by ReFED – a collaboration of over 30 businesses, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders focused on food waste – we collectively waste 40 percent of our food in the U.S. alone. On an annual basis, this equates to 400 pounds for every American, 1.3 percent of U.S. GDP, and $218 billion dollars. With a need to feed a growing population estimated to top 9 billion by 2050, reducing our food waste seems like a great place to start meeting this challenge.

Unlike many other societal issues, the need to solve the food waste issue seems pretty obvious. it’s a cause that people from all walks of life can get behind. And, the good news is, there are some feasible strategies to solve the issue. ReFED’s report presented a roadmap outlining cost-effective, scalable solutions to reduce US food waste by 20 percent in a decade, putting us on the path to achieve a national goal to cut food waste in half by 2030.

“If we can accomplish this goal, we will not only have reduced a tremendous amount of waste, we will also have an impact on all sorts of other problems – from food insecurity to climate change,” commented Chris Cochran, Executive Director of ReFED. “In many ways, food waste is an emerging industry, just like recycling was in the 1980s, or renewable energy in the early 2000s.”

So, how do we get there? The panelists at a SOCAP talk “Financing the Food Waste Free Future: Emerging Approaches to Funding Solutions” outlined one of the major actions needed to reach significant reductions in food waste, which is that we need to collectively galvanize hundreds of millions of dollars of new catalytic funding. It will take a spectrum of capital – from philanthropic to commercial – to get us here. An $18 billion dollar investment is what is estimated – and this equates to less than a tenth of a penny of investment per pound of food waste reduced.

The panel included representatives from the philanthropic, impact investment and innovation sectors to examine traditional and emerging approaches being used to fund solutions to reducing food waste. “$8 billion of government support, alongside $7 billion of market-rate private investments, and $3 billion of philanthropic grants will get us there,” says Cochran.

And the additional good news? This investment will yield an expected $100 billion in societal Economic Value over a decade. NRDC just published a report outlining key opportunities for investors on food waste reduction.

MissionPoint Capital Partners is an impact investment firm that supports clean energy and other environmental solutions. They have built out an entire fund model, called Fresh Fund, around the thesis of reducing food waste. The Fund aims to invest in de-risking innovations and unlocking key bottlenecks that currently prevent large scale food waste reduction in the U.S. The team is tracking hundreds of investment opportunities in the space, and Fresh Fund focuses on market-rate opportunities primarily in retail and recycling, with smaller opportunities in production and processing. The firm recently invested in a company called Spoiler Alert, a Boston-based technology startup helping the world’s largest food businesses manage unsold inventory more effectively.

Jesse Fink, the Founder of MissionPoint, was a co-founder of Priceline. “In many ways, what Priceline does is similar to what needs to be done for food recovery, even though airline seats are not a perishable good. The question is: how do we create supply and demand in a concentrated area?” posed Sarah Vared, a Principal at MissionPoint.

We still have a long way to go to reach our national goal of 50 percent food waste reduction by 2030. Let us remember what we all learned in Kindergarten: reduce, reuse, recycle. The first, and most important principle leads us to starting with a reduction in food waste. But, how do we move beyond investing in individual companies to create systems for food recovery and matchmaking?

Here are a few ideas:

  • New packaging technologies – made from bio-based plastics, for instance, can help seal meat and other highly perishable foods more effectively.
  • Meal kits – another systematic change example are companies like Blue Apron, who are helping reduce food waste upfront by doing portion control at a centralized location and then sending consumers only the ingredients they need for a particular meal.
  • Government incentive programs – For example, the state of California has allocated $40 million in greenhouse gas reduction funds to CalRecycle for investments in waste diversion and greenhouse gas reduction – this includes investments in food waste reduction approaches.

Ultimately, solutions require action by many stakeholders – from food businesses, to recovery and recycling innovators, to capital providers. ReFED is facilitating collaboration among leaders in all of these sectors, convening a Funders Initiative designed to drive philanthropic investment in food waste solutions, developing action guides in partnership with major restaurant, foodservice, and grocery retailers, and maintaining an Innovator Database of for-profit and nonprofit purveyors of prevention, recovery, and recycling solutions.

ReFED’s Food Waste Policy Finder also provides a state-by-state overview of public policy designed to promote food waste reduction.

And, we could all stand to think more about food waste in our own homes – maybe there are ways we can start wasting less food starting right now. Together we can cut food waste in half by 2030.

Image credit: North Devon Council Ad via Flickr

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