Conversations with a Founder – Reducing Waste from Farm to Table

The report behind the post Waste Not, Want Not is both upsetting and exciting. On the one hand you have a very real, very depressing situation in America where we lose 40% of the food we grow and people are legitimately going hungry. On the other hand, knowing this problem exists and knowing there are solutions to reduce such waste is exciting because there are great possibilities for innovation within the food industry. The problems are known and the solutions are attainable. As well such innovation is favorable to nonprofits, governments, and businesses alike. Reducing waste saves money so improvements are likely to be widely accepted. I’d heard Dr. Giles mention how his plans for the proposed Rural System could improve efficiency so I decided to revisit the topic with him.

Me: Dr. Giles, I recently shared with you the report on food waste in America which you felt was disappointing though not surprising since you were already aware of the need for reducing waste. Can you tell me again how Rural System proposes to improve on this problem?IMG_7695

Dr. Giles: Absolutely, the concept of waste reduction is a central theme in Rural System. You see I’ve been saying for years that reducing waste (or “loss costs”) is the key to widening the profit margin in the future. Production, especially agriculturally speaking, has been pushed to threshold meaning there’s little room to improve further upon what we can produce.

Me: So if we accept our current level of production (or reasonably grown) but can reduce the costs we incur in the form of “losses” and “overhead” then we improve our net profits?

Dr. Giles: Yes. Essentially I believe [across the breadth of Rural System] that we will be able to gain more from reduced cost and improved health than from profits from increased productivity.

Me: So how does Rural System propose to address the complex issues of reducing waste?

Dr. Giles: Well we can group waste into large categories, similar to how the report organized things. There is the farm level, involving unharvested food which has a lot to do with economics and market preference. Then there is the transport and distribution level which is actually two-fold: 1) pure transport costs of fuel, fleet, etc. and 2) the proximity of where food is produced to where it needs to be distributed. I believe that we can address these problems by thinking in terms of energetic units. The energy required to grow nutritious food, the energy to harvest it, and the energy to distribute it. Energic units provides a common language with which to describe the costs at each stage of the food supply with our end goal being access to the necessary nutrients for a healthy life for each American. For starters, Rural System proposes to use advanced technology which can weigh multiple factors to help us make decisions to reach our objective [a systems approach]. This will allow us to optimize where we grow crops to reduce production costs [see reasonably grown crops] and beyond that weather changing market preference.

Me: How can we weather changing market preference, an issue the agricultural industry battles with constantly?

Dr. Giles: Well this may be best handled not by optimization, but by simulation. The goal for our program is to unify capabilities for optimizing with simulating. For example a fluctuating market is based on consumer preference and we could simulate how changes in those preferences affect our profits which may lead to greater clarification for which factors of consumer preference play the largest role in fluctuating markets…..then we have a better chance of preparing for them and can alter our farming practices accordingly.

Me: Fascinating. So, what about the distribution side of things?

Dr. Giles: Produce that clearly will not make it during distribution, like quickly ripening shipments or blemished items will be processed as close to the farm as possible, reducing the high cost of transporting shipments we know will not fetch the same value as produce in good condition. Next we’ll optimize our transport routes to minimize food costs which is already done in the food industry except that we may be able to do it even more efficiently given the nature of the Rural System proposed enterprise [large network linked electronically] which allows us increased efficiency.

Me: What about how Rural System’s advanced technology aids in land use? Aren’t we talking about being able to strategically decide what will be most profitable on the land….crops as well as numerous other businesses in the rural enterprise environment which could include grocers, processing plants, farms, etc.?

Dr. Giles: Absolutely! The proposed Rural System would eventually be able to strategically determine where to grow, process, and distribute foods spatially with optimal efficiency.

Me: So essentially, in areas where distribution expense is excessive then we could determine where to start new farms to better serve those areas and which crops would be most successful, growing the appropriate diversity to satisfy a balanced diet?

Dr. Giles: Yes! Of course, we shouldn’t be so naïve to believe that we’ll be able to make all products available to everyone if that were the case. There are large regions which are not ideal for diverse crops and we’ll have to account for that, but we can improve on the availability of diverse fresh, healthy produce for many Americans.

Me: Interesting. So maybe not everyone could enjoy that cranberry or orange or avocado, but maybe these products would be special to certain regions like delicacies!……Well I think we’re having fun letting our minds run with possibilities but we both recognize that there are real limitations to controlling the market to that extent. However, there is undeniably vast potential for community building and farm planning strategically placed within the system based on land characteristics as well as transport economies.

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About Risa Pesapane

Risa is the Project Director for Rural System, Inc. and is an experienced research biologist and wildlife ecologist.

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