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How 3 Toronto startups are tackling food waste

From producing ingredients for plant-based meats to making bioplastics, local entrepreneurs are helping to reduce waste.

The issues of food waste can be hard to see — more than half of it happens before it ever reaches our plates. Yet, it is one of the most critical issues facing our planet, contributing to both climate change and food insecurity. In Canada, it’s estimated that 58 percent of the food produced is lost or wasted each year, which has an environmental impact equivalent to more than 2 million cars on the road. That’s a lot of land, labour and energy dedicated to food that never gets consumed.

To cut down on food loss and to extract value from what waste is created, innovators are developing some unique solutions. At the Elevate Festival last fall, tech journalist Manjula Selvarajah sat down with leaders from three Toronto companies who are tackling the problem at different points along the supply chain. Fei Luo, CEO and co-founder of Liven Proteins, upcycles byproducts of food manufacturing to make animal-free protein. Sam Kashani heads up the Canadian operations at Too Good To Go, an app that connects customers to businesses with food surplus, allowing them to sell items at a discounted rate. And Robert Celik is the growth and partnerships lead at Genesis; a company that takes green bin waste and converts it into biodegradable plastics using the power of bacteria.

Here is an excerpt from the discussion.

Liven Protein CEO Fei Luo and lead scientist Ondrej HalgasLiven Protein CEO Fei Luo (left) and lead scientist Ondrej Halgas make animal-free protein from upcycled agricultural products.

Manjula Selvarajah: Do we need to change the way we talk about food waste?

Fei Luo: I’d really like to emphasize that someone’s trash is probably someone else’s treasure. By using the word food waste, it kind of makes people think there is no value in these things. In fact, there’s tons of value. It’s possible to make great plastics from food waste; at Liven Protein, we are using it to make animal-free collagen to improve the nutritional value and texture of plant-based products. Rather than call it a byproduct, it can be seen as a co-product — something that generates more value.

Manjula Selvarajah: What inspired you to go into the alternative protein space?

Fei Luo: I started the journey thinking — we don’t have enough land. One-third of our land is already being used to grow beef, and the world’s population is growing. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I worried about what she’d eat when she grows up. We started to look into how we could make the whole process more sustainable and were inspired to reduce food loss in the processing system, by upcycling ingredients to make proteins.

About 60 to 70 percent of food waste is unavoidable, and we’re using that to make our product. Beyond Burger uses pea protein — which sounds like it’s saving the world because they’re not using animals to make burgers. But if you look at whole peas, 20 percent is protein and 40 to 50 percent is starch, which ends up in landfill or used to feed animals. At Liven we’re upcycling this sidestream to make our protein ingredients.

Too Good to Go mobile appToo Good to Go is a mobile app that connects customers to businesses with food surplus.

Manjula Selvarajah: So Fei you’re addressing loss at the manufacturing level. Let’s go further down the supply chain. Sam — what impact is Too Good To Go having on the issue of food waste?

Sam Kashani: We’ve diverted over 2,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions from food that would have been thrown out. The way our platform simply works is we connect consumers with grocery stores, businesses, bakeries and different food businesses that have surplus food at the end of the day. We sell their surplus on our platform at one-third of the price for consumers.

Manjula Selvarajah: But of course, not all food waste can be prevented. Where does Genecis come in?

Robert Celik: Similar to Liven, we upcycle food waste into higher value materials. We have a two-stage fermentation process where we convert food waste that’s been diverted from landfill into an intermediary molecule and then feed that to another type of bacteria that makes these biodegradable plastics. These plastics are called PHAs and have similar properties to traditional petroleum plastics. And these resins are fully marine and soil biodegradable — so we’re solving two problems at once by upcycling food waste and also creating sustainable biomaterials for the future.

Manjula Selvarajah: Technology can only take us so far. In Canada, we don’t just have a food shortage problem, we also have a food systems problem. What can we do to improve accessibility to quality food?

Sam Kashani: Food insecurity is quite a complicated problem because there’s income disparity, there’s land use, there’s the logistical challenge in getting food to people at the right time — especially in a vast country like Canada. A lot of food travels way more than we do in a lifetime — it’s fascinating to think about a salad having more travel time than us.

So, land use is one piece that needs to fundamentally change. There are a lot of companies in vertical farming and urban farming investing money to fundamentally change and have the food that we consume closer to us. The other area we need to address is the confusion around best before and use by dates. It results in a lot of food being wasted. Those are two things that can start to balance demand to actually provide food where it’s needed. We produce enough food — it’s just not ending up at the right table for the right person, within the right distribution and at the right cost for it to ultimately be consumed.

Genecis BioindustriesGenecis Bioindustries transforms food waste into biodegradable bioplastics.

Manjula Selvarajah: What else would you like to see to help solve food waste? 

Fei Luo: I checked out Too Good To Go this morning — I think the whole supply chain needs technology like it. We work on the material side; we would love to understand where the ingredients are. If there is a tool that could synchronize the data and digitize the supply chain, I think we’ll collectively be more successful.

Robert Celik: It’s really about having a pathway of getting to scale, and doing things like biomanufacturing that are cost-effective. Instead of having massive petroleum plastics factories in China and elsewhere, we want to create distributed production hubs. You’ve seen throughout the pandemic the logistical supply chain issues. If we’re already concentrating food waste in urban areas with millions of people in one spot — why not transform that food waste into resources that can be cycled back into those urban areas?

Sam Kashani: Today it’s make, take and waste. And waste is a linear equation that ultimately ends with a byproduct. It starts with changing the mindset of any business you’re in — just ask yourself: what’s your byproduct and how can I make sure there’s value in that? So to me it’s that circular motion.

Manjula Selvarajah: Do you think it’s possible to change people’s perception of what is waste? 

Sam Kashani: One problem is perception; another is expectation. We sit on our couch and we order groceries, and if it’s not there in 15 minutes we’re upset. Technology has conditioned us for convenience and we’re not aware of the byproduct. If you look at food waste and loss 20, 30, 40 years ago, it was never this much of a topic. You would never waste food on your plate. Versus today: our avocado’s a little bit brown, we’ll get a fresh one — that’s 16 gallons of water. How does that make sense? Perception over time is obviously the investment we’re making to try to change people’s mindset around food.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Hear how Canadian startup StormFisher is creating biogas from organic waste on the new MaRS podcast Solve for X.

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