Growing up, my mom would tell me to eat everything on my plate before leaving the dinner table. “Don’t let all of that goodness go to waste,” she’d say like clockwork. “Someone had to grow it.” She taught me to value the work it took farmers to put food on my plate, and it made me curious: Was anything wasted before it reached me? The answer led to a lifelong passion for what gets lost from tree to shelf.
Over 2.8 trillion pounds of food goes to waste each year, making it the number one problem we can solve to immediately stop climate change (1, 2). While most public awareness for food waste starts around the time your groceries reach the fridge, almost half of the food we don’t eat is wasted before it ever reaches a store shelf.
This is called food loss—it’s the stuff lost on the farm and what gets processed and thrown away by a manufacturer. In Sub-Saharan Africa, food loss accounts for nearly 95% of all wasted food on the continent (3). In-fact, the majority of global food loss stems from the inequities and inefficiencies facing smallholder farmers, a population of 1.5 billion people worldwide (4). And like my mom taught me to respect farmers, any effort to address food loss will have to start by empowering farmers at the smallholder level.
We can start by upcycling: creating a product with a higher value or quality than what you started with. It might sound like recycling—the process of repurposing waste into an alternative, usable form—but upcycling focuses on creating value, not just minimizing waste, and there’s no better way to address food loss than by upcycling it into better-for-everyone products.
In the past few years, hundreds of brands have launched upcycled products, organizing under the Upcycled Food Association and even creating the first official definition of upcycled foods. “Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.” Upcycled food redirects waste streams back into the food system, reclaiming the calories, nutrients, water and energy it took to grow and transport the ingredients.
Innovators breathe new life into what would have been wasted and earn loyal customers for the taste and origins of their foods. That makes fighting for a better planet profitable: Food waste is a $940B market opportunity, costing that much and more annually as long as it’s unaddressed. It’s good business to upcycle, and it’s good practice. 8% of all human-caused greenhouse emissions come from wasted food, meaning the entrepreneurs who create the next upcycled snacks are on the frontlines of true sustainability (5).
But how does upcycling reach smallholders? Agricycle Global has an answer.
Agricycle connects their network of 40,000 smallholders in emerging economies to global markets through low-barrier technologies and a portfolio of upcycled brands.
In the African plains of Northern Uganda, food loss usually occurs when the local market is oversaturated and supply chains can’t bring the fruits south. Without affordable ways to preserve what’s grown, the natural overabundance of fresh and organic mangoes goes to waste. At the peak of the local season, a street vendor will sell a basket of 50 mangoes for less than $0.35, and the majority of the (predominantly) women who walked miles to sell their fruits will discard them along the street when they go unsold; it makes the walk home easier.
What makes Agricycle special is that it helps smallholders with each step. First, they design and sell farmers passive solar dehydrators—simple devices that work without electricity—to safely dehydrate and preserve the fruits that grow in overabundance. Along with substantial food safety training and organizing, Agricycle empowers women growers to upcycle their would-be waste into delicious products that can be brought to a new market. Then Agricycle completes the circle, creating brands around the products crafted by smallholders and selling them in the United States.
Agricycle has upcycled hundreds of thousands of pounds of food across the world, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and empowering smallholders as independent business owners with life-changing incomes.
Let’s take two fruits as examples of what’s possible with upcycling:
Coconuts—Coconuts are typically sold for their water and meat, leaving the shells as waste. Coconut shells can be upcycled into a sustainable coconut charcoal due to their high calorific values and woody textures (brand 1) and the meat can be dried into coconut chips ready for snacking (brand 2).
Mangoes—Mangoes are delicious while fresh and taste great when dried, so when a mango can’t be eaten fresh you can make a healthy snack (brand 1). Meanwhile, no matter how you eat a mango, the pit is normally left over (which is up to 30% of the mango by weight). Mango pits can be milled into a fiber-rich and gluten-free baking flour (brand 2). The peels can even be upcycled into extracts for cosmetics or oil for a natural mosquito repellant (brand 3,4).
Upcycling on the smallholder level creates access to wonderful byproducts, each with equally amazing properties and opportunities. Agricycle’s model helps smallholders upcycle a mango that’s worth less than a penny in the local market into four different products: dried mango, mango flour, cosmetics, and extracts.
There are countless opportunities for new brands to upcycle produce around the world, and consumer preferences for upcycled food is growing: 60% want to buy more upcycled products and the popularity for reducing waste is expanding as well (5).
So, how can you get involved?
- Reflect on the companies you buy from and the food you snack on, and the waste streams they create and their own transparency on the issue.
- Create your own ways to upcycle food and learn from companies doing the same.
- Reevaluate your waste streams and ingredients. You can find new market opportunities or exposure by incorporating upcycled ingredients into your product.
- Connect with other companies upcycling food by joining organizations like the Upcycled Food Association.
My mom said it best: Don’t let all of that goodness go to waste.