Food waste is a massive global problem that needs to be addressed, but the issue is often ignored, as huge amounts of food are discarded for not meeting quality standards or for spoilage during transit. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, a staggering 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year, costing the global economy $1 trillion. Food wastage is also bad for the environment, as it contributes greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 and around 1.4 billion hectares of land is needed to produce that wasted food.
With the global population estimated to reach around 10 billion by 2050, it will be incredibly hard to sustainably feed such a huge number of people, unless the food industry is revolutionized on several fronts, including massively reducing food waste.
Tackling food waste is a very complicated matter, because retailers and consumers have high standards and expectations, and allowing substandard products to go through could risk consumers’ welfare and opens up producers and distributors to expensive lawsuits. However, most quality control methods for produce are quite inefficient and primitive. Even today, most inspections are done manually, subjectively, and by sight. Meanwhile, checking the internal composition of fruits and vegetables is time-consuming and results in the sample being destroyed.
Neolithics, an agritech company based in Israel, is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to reduce food waste and ensure food safety and quality through its optical sensing AI-powered solution known as Crystal.eye™. This technology, which can be mounted and configured in various ways, automates and upgrades quality control for fresh produce, in order to maximize utilization and reduce waste.
While the normal spectrum of visible light has 3 colors – red, green, and blue, Crystal.eye™ uses hyperspectral imaging, with over 400 spectra of light. This light can penetrate deep into a fruit or vegetable and allows the device to scan even inside the sample, eliminating the need to cut it open or grind it.
The images produce a unique fingerprint, which is then analyzed by Neolithics’ food scientists to identify various characteristics, such as firmness, moisture content, sugar content, acidity, and many more. The data is then fed to an AI machine learning engine, allowing the system to scan and analyze a large batch of samples in a matter of seconds.
The outcomes of the inspections are then instantly displayed on a digital dashboard and can be delivered as reports, tailored to each customer’s unique requirements. For example, french fry makers need to know how much dry matter is contained in the potatoes they process, while winemakers take into account the grapes’ acidity and sweetness to obtain the flavor profile they desire.
Using Crystal.eye™ allows growers and distributors to greatly expand their sampling, from the usual 1% to around 30% to 40%. This ensures greater accuracy and significantly reduces the chance of produce being discarded due to not meeting the customers’ requirements.
According to Wayne Nathanson, the company’s VP for Global Development, knowledge in food science is Neolithics’ main differentiator. While there are other companies that make the hardware to move around and sort fruits and vegetables, he says that usually these technologies work on exterior qualities, and aren’t able to analyze the produce’s interior. Most companies do not have a team of expert food scientists to fully harness the information gathered from the produce like Neolithics, he adds.
Currently, Crystal.eye™ can check the content or defects of produce, providing customers with various external or internal attributes. This solution has been launched and is being used by an increasing number of growers, distributors, and food processing companies. At the end of this year, Neolithics expects to update the technology with the capability to assess the produce’s maturity cycle, allowing customers to identify how long it will take before it spoils. The company is also working on being able to identify traces of pesticides and other banned chemicals on the produce, with release estimated for next year.
“Sustainability is very important to Neolithics, and our mission is to reduce food waste and improve food safety. Knowing how much food is wasted daily is a major motivator for making a difference. We want to eliminate food wastage across the supply chain, including removing the need to destroy the produce when it’s being inspected. We also want to get more edible quality produce to the consumer, by helping the various links of the supply chain distribute it better. There are 1.3 billion tons of wasted food annually, and there are roughly a billion people in the world experiencing hunger. We believe there’s an opportunity to feed more people with the food that is thrown out. This becomes more and more critical, the closer the world population gets to the 10 billion mark,” Nathanson says.