This post originally appeared on LinkedIn and is Part 1 of 2. In Part 2, my co-founder Nathan Fenner will describe his motivation to drive transformational climate impact with technology.
Food, more so than anything else, shapes the health of people and our planet.
For people, food shapes our day-to-day experience of the world. The first cup of coffee energizes our day and the shared meal with our family winds it down. The food we eat is also the single largest non-genetic determinant of our longevity.
Food profoundly shapes our environment. Growing, producing, and distributing food consumes 30% of global energy use and 50% of habitable land use.
As a result, I believe that improving our food system is the single biggest lever we have to positively impact the health of people and our planet at the same time.
This belief has motivated my career: I’ve formulated better-for-you frostings, gotten products on shelves in grocery stores, consulted with food biotechnology companies, started a small protein snack business, and studied the history of our global food system.
Informed by these experiences and education, here’s a “short history of our contemporary food system…”
The general concept of agriculture (as opposed to hunting and gathering) came to be roughly 10,000 years ago. For most of history, the vast majority of people and effectively 90%+ of workers were farmers. Agricultural practices were improved only incrementally for thousands of years until the first and second Industrial Revolutions. Efficiencies born of these revolutions enabled an ever higher percentage of the population to not be farmers and equipped us to grow remarkably more food per farmer (70% of the US labor force were farmers in 1840; that number is close to 1% today).
At the turn of the 20th century, though, we had a major problem: population was exploding and food production couldn’t keep up. Fortunately, a series of major innovations--most notably the creation of synthetic fertilizer and plant yield improvements from the Green Revolution enabled us to feed the world through the World Wars and decades after.
And then we kept getting better at making calories. We became experts at growing corn, wheat, rice, sugar, and soybeans and converting them into delicious, shelf-stable, calorie-dense, processed foods. We got so good at this that total calorie consumption per capita per day grew from 2900 to 3700 over this period of time.
While this trend enabled us to feed the world as the global population climbed from 3 billion to over 7 billion, it also caused a trifecta of problems: obesity, undernutrition, and environmental taxation. It turns out that processed foods are very calorie-dense, but not very nutrient-dense or satiating. So even though it sounds paradoxical, most richer countries now experience skyrocketing rates of obesity and undernutrition at the same time. And the growing system meant growing environmental consumption: 16.5 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 along with that massive total land use mentioned earlier.
So what’s next?
In summary, the miraculous productivity of our current food system comes at the cost of human and environmental health outcomes. As a result, it’s clear that we need to work on the following objectives and outcomes:
While there are multiple critical avenues to do the above (e.g., shifting towards better row crops and legumes like barley, oats, lentils, chickpeas), the most obvious is to increase the percentage of fresh foods in our diet.
Fresh foods, like fruits and vegetables, are intrinsically less calorie-dense, more nutrient-dense, and more filling than processed alternatives. Diets with higher relative amounts of fresh food drive significantly better human health outcomes and longevity. So we should work to make fresher, healthier foods cheaper and more accessible.
I must note: I still am a big proponent of processed foods for their caloric efficiency, convenience, deliciousness, and innovation (e.g., plant-based and cellular meats). I am not advocating for less innovation in food processing; rather, I am advocating for eating more fresh food on balance.
Achieving the objectives above will require new revolutions in our food system. And the challenge is only becoming more difficult as climate change suppresses agricultural yields, as we run out of arable land to grow on, and as the problem becomes more complex than “grow more calories.”
We want to accelerate an increase of fresh, nutrient-dense, and satiating foods in our diet, and we want to do so in a way that is sustainable for our planet.
So how do we do that? With technology.
Billions and billions of dollars have been invested into physical supply chains and digital technology designed for general commerce. These investments have yielded phenomenal outcomes that range from two-day shipping, to year-round availability, to incredibly low prices. Yet, despite the potential for technology to yield these benefits, fresh foods have remained far less addressed by technology.
Our supply chains were designed to accommodate standardized items that come in a box, have a barcode, and last a very long time. Jeans, iPhones, car parts, and even Cheerios fit that bill--a strawberry does not. A strawberry is just different, and way more complex: it’s dying from the moment it’s picked, it doesn’t have a “Best By” date, it’s seasonal and not made in a factory, and it must be carefully transported at a cold temperature in the few days of lifespan it has left.
Retail and supply chain technology companies were incentivized to build one-size-fits-all systems across all retail sectors, including clothing, electronics, car parts, general merchandise, but it didn’t make sense for these companies to pivot their entire architecture to fit the weirdness of fresh foods.
Without technology optimizing decision making and guiding workflows, fresh food businesses have had to rely on intuition for critical business processes. Tasks like determining how much food to order into a grocery store were often done on pen and paper--even by multi-billion dollar companies. As a result, retailers in the US alone throw out more than $40 billion worth of food per year and consumers at home lose countless days of shelf life as food sits for too long in the supply chain. Not only does the $40 billion represent lost profits for enterprises, it also makes for higher food prices for consumers.
The flip side of this problem is a massive opportunity. If we can inject more technology into fresh food, we can reduce waste, increase quality, and lower prices. Put differently: with fresh-first technology we can more sustainably feed the world nourishing food.
Building fresh-first technology
That was the bet that my co-founders Nathan, Volo, and I made when we started Afresh in 2017.
Note: in part 2 of ‘Why We Started Afresh’, Nathan will expand on the massive opportunity for technology to drive positive climate impact.
While we still have a significant amount to prove, we’ve seen that bet pay off. Our initial product, a store ordering solution purpose-built for fruits and vegetables has driven transformative value for our grocery customers. We’ve seen waste reduction of 15-25% or more while simultaneously driving 3% higher sales. Store teams, who do such a hard and important job, have effectively adopted our tool with 95%+ ordering recommendation adherence rates.
Our best work is often done with hardworking grocery store employees. One conversation in particular sticks in my mind. A couple years in, an experienced Produce Manager told our team, “I’ve been working in the grocery industry for almost 40 years, and working with Afresh is the most meaningful thing I've done in my entire career.”
While we started with a small set of regional chains that took a leap of faith on us, these successes have enabled us in turn to work with an even larger set of customers, including the 3rd largest in the country: Albertsons. We’re coming up on having signed almost 10% of all supermarkets in the US onto our platform and we’re so excited to grow even further from here.
The future is fresh
We’re proud to announce that, with the $115M Series B funding round we shared last week, we have a significant amount of capital to accelerate our vision of a fresher future.
And while I am certainly excited about this financing, I’m more energized by our team, the phenomenal work we do to be of service to our grocery customers, and the positive social impact we’re making. We’ve already multiplied our live store count by 7x this year and anticipate preventing at least 34 million pounds of food waste on a run rate basis by the end of the year.
We have a clear path ahead towards reducing millions, and then billions, of pounds of food waste while building a strong and enduring business. It’ll require hard work, but I know we have the team to do it.
We're excited to do our part in driving the future of our food system and to make progress against our mission of eliminating food waste and making fresh food accessible to all.
Join our bunch!
As our we expand and enhance our technology, we'll be growing our team of incredible people as well. If you're looking for a career at the intersection of cutting edge technology and positive climate impact, come explore our open roles here!