The Toothpick Company turns fungi into bioherbicide to fight Striga, a devastating “master weed” that has devastated an estimated 40 million farms in Africa.
When Lillian Makokha’s farm revealed its curse, it came in the form of fuschia-purple flowers—a plant known as oluyongo or kayongo in western Kenya. These flowers have been around since Makokha was born, but recently they’ve far surpassed other pests and diseases in their destructiveness. In 2019, her 3.5-acre plot, which should have produced up to 25 90-kilogram bags of maize per acre, produced only six. It wasn’t enough to feed her eight-person household, let alone sell for much-needed cash.
The curse was cruel in its persistence: Other pests like Mimosa pudica, fall armyworm, and locusts reduce crop yield or come in waves, but oluyongo destroys everything, year after year. As soon as maize was planted, their green stalks would yellow and bow down to healthy oluyongo. Makokha was advised to add manure, hand-pull the weeds, or leave the land fallow, but these suggestions didn’t work, and she was running out of time. It only takes one failed season for her family to go hungry, for her children to drop out of school, or for her to spiral into debt, unable to repay loans for seeds and supplies.
Unlike other weeds that simply compete with crops for resources, oluyongo is a parasitic root weed, leaching fluids and nutrients from its host. Known colloquially as witchweed, Striga (“witch” in Latin) is a genus of parasitic plants that has invaded nearly every country in Africa.
The species with purple flowers that attack grass-family crops like those planted in Makokha’s region—maize sorghum, millet—is Striga hermonthica. As soon as its host crop is planted, Striga germinates and penetrates the host’s roots. By the time a farmer sees the Striga plant aboveground, the damage is done. After flowering, each Striga plant can release up to 200,000 seeds, forming a dangerous, invisible seed bank in the soil, awaiting the next generation of hosts. Striga hermonthica affects 50–300 million hectares, or an estimated 40 million farms, primarily in Africa. In western Kenya alone, Striga has resulted in approximately €50 million ($54.5 million USD) worth of maize losses, mostly for small-scale sustenance farmers. Agronomists have called it “the most serious worldwideparasitic weed.” Thriving in dry areas and poor soil—conditions that will become more common as climate change alters rains and drives farmers into debt—Striga is the “perfect storm” of a pest.
Striga could have changed the fate of Makokha’s entire family. But then her friend Charity told her about Kichawi Kill, a product of Toothpick Company. “Kichawi” means magic in Kiswahili, and, well, there was something magical about covering her maize seeds in a strange rice mixture that smelled like overripe bananas and could kill Striga. Desperate, she tried it. And like magic, last season, her farm produced the 25 bags of maize per acre it was supposed to. Makokha hasn’t stopped spreading the word about Kichawi Kill since.
“Magic” Mushrooms: Nature’s arsenal of bioherbicides
In 2007, retired U.S. Navy surgeon Dr John Sands was volunteering at a hospital in Maseno, western Kenya, treating one severe malnutrition case after the other. Frustrated by the futility of treating patients in such advanced stages of malnutrition—and confused since there was no shortage of fertile fields around—Sands asked his longtime friend Florence Oyosi, an agronomist, what was happening. She brought him to a field of purple flowers and introduced him to Striga. Sands thought, “I know just the guy for this.”
That guy was his brother, Dr David Sands, a plant pathologist at Montana State University who has always been, according to his daughter Claire Sands Baker (now Director of the Toothpick Project), an “out-of-the-box thinker.” Among his many paradigm-shifting scientific discoveries, the one that led to The Toothpick Project was his decades-long research on Fusarium oxysporum (“FOXY”), a soil-borne fungus. Over 200 forms of FOXY are highly selective, attacking only one specific plant. It is a natural arsenal of potential bioherbicides.
The challenge was developing a FOXY strain that would kill Striga but not its hosts. Sands’ first step was to find African scientists to lead the effort, a search that led him to Sila Nzioki, a plant pathologist at the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organization. Together with Oyosi, Nzioki collected samples of wilted Striga in Maseno and found 17 different FOXY strains already in their roots. The Striga had succumbed to naturally occurring FOXY, killed by certain amino acids the fungus excreted. Nzioki and Sands identified which amino acids were deadly to Striga only and found a key trio—L-leucine, L-tyrosine, L-methionine—that they combined into FOXY-T14 (“T” for “trio,” 14 for 2014). This is the active ingredient in what would, after Kenyan regulatory approval, become The Toothpick Project’s commercially distributed product, Kichawi Kill.
In 2013, The Toothpick Project ran field trials with 500 members of Oyosi’s farmers’ group, called the Liberty Farmer Initiative. The results were so astounding that Nzioki, Sands, Oyosi and Baker squinted at the spreadsheet: FOXY-T14 increased crop yield by 56% in the long rains planting season and 42% in short rains. Yields increased in 499 out of 500 plots. “That’s better than chemicals,” explains Pam Marrone, former CEO of agricultural biologicals company Marrone Bio Innovations. “They have a nearly perfect win rate, and you don’t see that very often!”
In these field trials, they tested FOXY-T14 alongside the other main Striga control solution on the market: StrigAway, a seed coated with—and bred to be resistant to—the chemical herbicide Imazapyr. But while farmers must purchase StrigAway every season, FOXY-T14 persists in the soil, attacking Striga’s seeds generation after generation. After a few consecutive seasons using FOXY-T14, farmers reported Striga disappearing altogether. Unlike the chemical herbicide, the non-toxic rice inoculum does not require gloves, plus farmers can use whatever seeds they like—zone-specific and drought-resistant seeds, or even saved seeds. Kichawi Kill is a bioherbicide tailor-made for smallholder farmers.
Toothpicks and Rice: Getting FOXY-T14 into the hands of farmers
In April 2018, The Toothpick Project director Baker officially registered its Kenya company, Toothpick Company Limited. Headquartered in Kakamega, Toothpick Company currently serves seven counties in western Kenya, where Striga is most prevalent, employing a team of eight and running on an operating budget of $160,000. Its aim to serve smallholder farmers has given Toothpick Company a mission to develop a farmer-centric approach to marketing and distribution. Farmers themselves perform the role of production sites, Kichawi Kill evangelists, planting instructors, and Striga educators.
In the Kakamega lab, the FOXY-T14 mycelia are introduced to a substrate, which looks like a toothpick on a petri dish, hence the organization’s name. The secondary inoculation is done by village inoculum producers (“VIPs”), almost all of whom are farmers themselves and 80% of whom are women. The live FOXY-T14 are introduced to buckets of cooked, cooled rice, and after three days of incubation, the inoculum—a brownish, pungent rice mixture—is ready to distribute to farmers at 300 KES ($2.35) per bucket. The farmer coats each maize seed with the inoculum before placing it in the soil.
Beyond Kichawi Kill: A sustainable platform for bioherbicides
Although much of the world relies on chemical herbicides, these substances have proven harmful to ecological and human health. As of May 2022, for example, Monsanto has settled over 100,000 glyphosate (RoundUp) lawsuits related to its carcinogenic effects, doling out more than €10.3 billion ($11.3 billion USD) in damages and fines. Despite the evident need for bioherbicides, the technical challenges of biological solutions can dissuade investment.
“There hasn’t been a new mode of action discovered for herbicides—meaning a newclass of herbicides—in 20- to 30 years,” says Marrone. “Innovation has been low on the chemical side, yet everyone wants to get away from chemicals. Finding biologicals is really important right now.”
Baker, for her part, sees the Toothpick Project as “a bioherbicide platform for the world.”. The point is not to stop at Striga hermonthica in western Kenya, Baker says, but to create building blocks for the development of other bioherbicides. They will, in turn, be able to tackle food insecurity, biodiversity loss, pollution and toxicity in a variety of contexts. “That’s the global idea of the innovation of a bioherbicide,” she says, “all dependent on host-specific virulent Fusaria.”
For all of its future global potential, however, the most important metric is visible within the changed fortune of a single family. After a couple of consecutive good harvests, Lillian Makokha has built a new house on her homestead, its new corrugated metal roof still crisp and gleaming. The long rains are coming soon. The soil of her tilled fields lay waiting, face-up in the hot sun. She’s ready for the flood of Kichawi Kill orders she’ll receive once it’s time to plant. “This year, we thank God,” says Makokha. The curse is gone.
The world’s thirstiest crop is also responsible for feeding half our planet. The Sustainable Rice Platform thinks it can make a better life for farmers and consumers alike.
UBON RATCHATHANI, Thailand
The full moon casts a milky glow over the watery green fields in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand’s largest rice-producing province. The light brings up a childhood memory for rice farmer Banjong Panin. On full moon nights, her parents would bring Banjong and her siblings to spend the night near their paddy fields.
“That was like a night of camping for us kids,” she says with a smile. “I couldn’twait to see it.”
It was only much later that she discovered those nights were not camping adventures – her family was guarding their paddy against someone who could slip into the field, guided by the moonlight, and steal their rice.
Now in her mid-fifties and a grandmother herself, Banjong continues to eke out a living by laboring in the fields. Out of her 2.4 hectares, her family makes just
$1,500 yearly—a paltry sum compared to Thailand’s average household income of $10,346. She and her two sons work odd jobs to make ends meet.
Banjong’s hardships closely resemble that of 144 million small rice farmers worldwide. They are responsible for producing 729 million tons of rice that feed nearly half the world’s population, and their job isn’t getting less important. According to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), rice production must increase by 25% by 2050, reaching 1 billion tons, to match growing demand.
It can feel like a Sisyphean task, not least because climate change has led to a severe lack of water, the first and most essential resource for rice cultivation.
Rice is one of the world’s thirstiest crops, requiring up to 2,500 liters of water per kilogram – twice the amount needed for wheat and five times that for maize. One-third of the world’s developed freshwater resource goes to irrigated rice. And rice farmers like Banjong are on the front line. “There has been less and less rain, and we were forced to farm with barely enough water,” she explains. “The yield decreased, and rice barely survived the driest years.”
Then a neighbor introduced her—and other farmers in her village—to the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP). The cutting-edge playbook for creating more sustainable, drought-resistant and higher-quality rice crops also promised to take much less labor. But this wasn’t a new technology per se, just a system of best practices and accountability. Could it really do all that?
The world’s first rice standard
The SRP secretariat is located in Bangkok, Thailand’s bustling capital. Co- found in 2011 by the IRRI and the United Nations Environment Programme, and with over 100 research and private sector partners, the SRP is the world’s first rice standard. For a food that is so widely consumed, it’s a bit odd that it took so long to standardize its production in a sustainable way.
Wyn Ellis, Executive Director of SRP, points out there have been longstanding efforts to make perceived high-value crops like coffee or cotton more sustainable. “Rice, on the other hand, is considered substantially less sophisticated, and so it’s overlooked despite a larger carbon footprint,” he says. The danger of that oversight can go in two directions, he says. Rice can harm the planet while itself “becoming a victim” of global warming.
One hectare of rice crop, if farmed with constant flooding and chemical fertilizers, can emit up to 300 kg of the potent greenhouse gas methane. SRP aims to reform the global rice sector to help improve the planet, the product, and the people who farm it.
But to do this, the rice value chain had to be redesigned from beginning to end.
The details that matter
The SRP standard covers eight areas split into 41 separate indications to assist farmers in sustainably growing and harvesting rice. Farmers are advised on everything from farm management and pre-planting to water use, nutrient management, and integrated pest management. Best practices, such as including drying time in post-harvest (which has been shown to ensure the highest quality grain), are encouraged.
Thanu Thanhakij, who oversees nearly 150 rice farmers in his role at the Ban Don Mu Community Rice Center in Ubon Ratchathani, adopted the SRP standard in 2018 to astonishing results. “Only direct seeding, rather than sowing over the field as in the past, saved us 80% of what we paid for seed,” he explains. “We saved 60% off the overall cost. Rather than flooding the field for an entire month, alternate watering and drying saved us 50% of the waterand yielded more rich grain. Land studies enable us to have custom-made fertilizers and determine how much we need. There’sno reason to waste money on fertilizer we don’tunderstand. We now have cash left in our pockets.”
The standard also addresses health and safety criteria for farmers, including personal protective equipment, pesticide and chemical storage, and disposal. While it may seem initially daunting, farmers choose which of the 41 indicators they can realistically meet, and SRP assigns a compliance score based on their selection.
Farmers, for example, will score two points if they do not use pesticides. If the farmer used pesticides but followed the SRP guidelines while doing so, they would receive one point. The use of pesticides without training results in a zero.
Based on self and group evaluations, farmers evaluate themselves. Farmers earning 33 out of 100 points are “working toward sustainable rice cultivation;” those who receive 90 points have “sustainably cultivated rice.”
Crunching the numbers
SRP has 506 SRP-verified trainers working with over 150,000 farmers in 39 countries. In 2022 alone, SRP verified just under 130,000 tons of paddy rice from more than 30,000 hectares in India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Spain. This year, Ellis and his colleagues intend to double all those numbers. But their work doesn’t end with a fancy product label. “We’re not here to flash another certificate,” Ellis explains. “We’re here to make sustainable change.”
Only rice that meets the highest level of “the SRP Assurance Scheme” can leave the nation of origin as SRP-verified rice. Developed in 2020, the SRP Assurance Scheme comprises three degrees of assurance based on different evaluation demands and levels of robustness. Rice farmers and farmer organizations can select between self-assessment at Level 1 and second-party verification at Level 2.
Those who passed Level 3 audits conducted by independent third-party auditors are allowed to use the SRP label on their products. SRP-Verified rice is now accessible on retail shelves in 20 countries, including Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. SRP’s marketing team in Europe works closely with food retailers and organizations, including Lidl, Costco, and Walmart, to put SRP rice on shelves.
Success and Challenges
Shahid Tarer, Managing Director and CEO of Galaxy Rice, one of Pakistan’s biggest basmati rice exporters, has shipped 15,000 tons of his SRP-verified rice to the European market in the last four years. He first learned about SRP in 2015 and was immediately enamored. Dealing with farmers, though, was a longer process.
“That was difficult in the beginning,” he recalls. “We informed farmers about this novel approach and gathered them to work together. It was tough. I remember the third year when we weren’tsure if we could pull it off.” Despite early reservations about changing their habits, more than 600 farmers he works with use SRP.
The Loc Troi Group, Vietnam’s rice trading leader, first piloted the SRP standard with 150 farmers on 450 hectares in 2016. They’ve since expanded to 3500 farmers throughout the Mekong Delta on 11,000 hectares. Loc Troi Group has supported hundreds of farmers to reach the perfect score of 100 points on the SRP scale.
“However, consumers knew little about sustainable rice,” explains Tran Nguyen Ha Trang, Deputy Director of the Loc Troi Agricultural Research Institute Loc Troi Group. “SRP market investigation and promotion are essential so that consumers are willing to pay for healthy rice that is good for the environment and community.“
Next year, SRP and a host of partners will launch rice farmer finance operations in Bangladesh, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Their mix of policy and market- oriented solutions has been successful wherever they have expanded. In 2019, the Sustainable Rice Landscapes Initiative used the SRP as its “replicable and scalable” tool to help them measure and manage 4.2 million hectares in South and Southeast Asia to reduce 116.2 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
But its impact on individuals is most strongly felt. Back in Ubon Ratchathani, Banjong notices the first farmer in her village starting to harvest in preparation for the upcoming wet season. The rest of his neighbors will soon follow. Banjong is proud of her sustainably cultivated rice. Just as importantly, the money she has saved from SRP farming goes toward her three young grandchildren’s schooling. She’s building a bright future for them and a safer, more sustainable world around them.
How a 141-year-old waste management company is pioneering the recycling—rather than mining—of phosphorus and other nutrients we need to keep feeding the world.
he person who discovered phosphorus was hoping to find something else. In Hamburg in 1669, the self-styled chemist Hennig Brand was, like many of his peers at the time, trying to turn base metals into gold.
Believing that the human body was the key, he boiled large amounts of urine and heated the residue, eventually producing a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark. Brand called his discovery phosphorus, from the Greek for “light-bearer.” (He later sold his supply for 200 thalers—about $13,300 in today’s money—when he needed some cash.)
For more than a century phosphorus was made through this method, for example to produce an early version of matches, until in the 18th century a couple of Swedish chemists discovered that calcium phosphate could be sourced from bones, which became an early fertilizer. This and other discoveries eventually led to the development of commercial fertilizers, by far the largest global use for phosphorus, and enabled the Green Revolution and a massive global population boom.
But the way we source phosphorus—mining it from reserves in a handful of countries and importing it—is unstable and unsustainable. Phosphorus feeds the world, but also pollutes it, and phosphorus prices and conflict are disrupting food production. There’s a race on once again to revolutionize how we get our phosphorus, and scientists are, as they were at the beginning, looking at human waste for answers.
In 2005, Yariv Cohen, then a 34-year-old chemical engineer, was working on this problem when he made his own accidental discovery. While conducting PhD research in recovering phosphorus from sewage sludge ash—a by- product of incinerating sewage sludge—at Sweden’s University of Agricultural Sciences, he set up an experiment to recover phosphorus in the form of a highly concentrated ammonium phosphate solution. “I was testing a new idea for concentrating the solution without water evaporation—by circulating the ion exchange regeneration solutions and adding ammonia in a particular way to obtain a final product with as high a concentration as possible,” he says. He then left it to run overnight.
“I came to the lab in the morning, and instead of finding a highly concentrated solution as I expected, the system was completely clogged with white crystals, like it was covered with snow,” says Cohen.
“Initially, I was disappointed that the experiment failed,” he says. But it hadn’t: the white stuff turned out to be pure ammonium phosphate crystals, and he realized he had indeed found a method to recover solid phosphorus crystals without the need for evaporation—a new, more energy-efficient way.
Cohen’s PhD research and years of investigating phosphorus recovery techniques led to his current role as head of research and development at Sweden’s EasyMining. The company now holds several global patents for the extraction and recovery of resources from wastewater, sewage, and fly ash—a byproduct of incinerated waste—for which the company, along with its parent, Ragn-Sells, is shortlisted for the 2022 Food Planet Prize. Their technologies can potentially improve food security by recovering nutrients—producing better quality than mined ones—from waste to reuse in fertilizer and other uses, instead of relying on unstable global supply chains.
“The whole value chain needs to be changed,” says Cohen. There are many ways to recover nutrients from our food and waste cycle, but it’s not being done at a large scale—yet. “Quantities matter and quality matters,” says Cohen, when it comes to making recovery viable. Both are a challenge.
Put simply, there is no life without phosphorus. Phosphates are essential for bones and teeth, for DNA, and for every living cell. As an essential ingredient in all fertilizers, it’s also crucial for crop growth. “Plants need all three—nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—to grow,” says Cohen. But unlike nitrogen, phosphorus is finite: it cannot be replaced, substituted, or manufactured.
The world’s phosphorus supplies—which took millions of years to form— are depleting, with reserves of phosphate rock concentrated in a handful of countries. Morocco, China, Egypt, Algeria, and Syria control 85% of the world’s phosphate rock reserves. About 80% of mined phosphate rock—sedimentary rock containing fossilized deposits composed of remains of animals, algae, and sea creatures—is converted into mineral fertilizers for global food production.
As earth’s population grows, we will need more phosphorus to produce food at a time when it’s becoming more scarce and much more expensive. The biggest need is in developing countries, which are already affected by rising prices. One large study released this summer states that global phosphate prices have risen 400% since 2020 and 1 in 7 farmers can’t access or afford phosphorus.
The largest share of the world’s phosphorus reserves—around 70%, according to the latest US Geological Survey—is located in Morocco and the Western Sahara. China’s 5% of phosphorus reserves is a distant second, but China is the world’s largest producer, and if it keeps producing at the current rate, its reserves will be depleted in the next 35 years. There is only one operating phosphorus mine in the European Union, in Finland. This mine produces 1 million tonnes annually, about 10 percent of the EU’s need, and is projected to be depleted by 2035.
Along with having the most reserves, Morocco is the world’s largest exporter and the second largest producer of phosphates, if one includes Western Sahara, a long disputed territory where the remote Bou Craa mine is located. This mine has one of the world’s largest phosphorus deposits, at 1.7 billion tons, and currently produces 3 million tons annually. The mined rock is transported on the world’s largest conveyor belt system from the mine to the coast 61 miles away, from where it is shipped all around the world.
“Most of us, most days, will eat some food grown on fields fertilized by phosphate rock from [Bou Craa] mine,” environmental author and journalist Fred Pearce noted in Yale’s University’s Environment360 blog. Conflict and high costs have already disrupted production in Morocco. Unless we can recycle more phosphorus or access other sources, Morocco’s share of worldwide production could be 80% by 2100, a level of concentration that is inherently dangerous to global supply chains.
There is now another pressing problem with phosphorus and food security on the European continent. Russian-mined phosphate dominates the European import market, and the war in Ukraine was a looming topic at the 4th EuropeanSustainable Phosphorus Conference (ESPC), held in Vienna in June 2022.
“Currently, the phosphorus price is so high because of a shortage we already had, and [Ukraine’s invasion by] Russia,” says Ludwig Hermann, President of the European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform, which organized the conference.
Mining is precarious, but phosphorus needs are rising. That is why phosphorus recovery, long discussed but little implemented (at least not at scale), is having its moment. Phosphorus mines may be finite, but the substance can be recovered in several different ways from sources such as human waste, plant matter, manure, and the waste of food that has been treated with phosphorus fertilizer.
In 2019, over 500 scientists signed ‘The Helsinki Declaration,’ calling for food, agriculture, waste and other sectors to improve global phosphorus sustainability.
At the ESPC in Vienna, over 300 people gathered at the Andaz Hotel conference center to discuss the latest in phosphorus sustainability—from across science and academia, industry, energy companies, fertilizer companies, researchers, journalists, politicians, EU policymakers. At the hotel’s conference center, attendees mingled around standing tables with coffee and Viennese pastries, but also among jars containing samples of fertilizer pellets, sewage sludge ash (which resembles ground coffee) and calcium phosphate (a white powder) that had been recycled, rather than mined.
Their goal: to arrive at what Christian Kabbe, CEO of EasyMining’s Germany office, calls the “reality stage.” That means not just recovering phosphorus, in large enough amounts and good enough quality—scrubbed of a lot of the toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and uranium that exist in sewage sludge ash— but also finding the market for it.
“Recovery tends to still be technology focused, and few have explored the market side,” says Kabbe. The amount of recovered phosphorus is also crucial: “There must be volume for recovered phosphorus to be viable. It can’tbe pocket dust.”
Cohen’s lab “accident” as a PhD student resulted in EasyMining’s first patent, for Clean-MAP, a method for extracting ammonium phosphate from mining industry waste. Cohen and his colleague, Patrik Enfält—plus one investor— founded EasyMining in 2007 to commercialize its technologies. Since then, EasyMining has produced several patents, with the help of investment and support from its much older parent company.
Ragn-Sells is Sweden’s biggest waste management, recycling, and environ- mental services company. The three-generation family business has a waste management pedigree dating back to 1881, when Amandus Zakarias Leonard Sellberg set up a haulage company—at first, with just one horse—transporting latrines from central Stockholm to farms in the countryside. In 1928, on his wife Julia’s family farm, Amandus and Julia’s son, Ragnar Sellberg, started a waste collection service for local home-owners. In the 1960s, Sellberg steered the company’s activities into waste management and recycling.
Ragn-Sells’ head office remains at the bucolic (but updated) Väderholmens Gård (farm) in Sollentuna, 11 miles north of Stockholm. On an early June afternoon, birdsong accompanies the hum of a robotic lawn mower ambling over manicured gardens in front of the company’s executive offices in an airy, sunny building. Electric car charging ports adorn the farm buildings—a cluster of wooden barns painted the “Falu red” pigment common in Scandinavia.
Ragnar’s son, Erik Sellberg, Chairman of Ragn-Sells, explains that he never intended to go into the family business: he was studying economics when he seriously injured his knee in a boating accident. In his convalescence he started working with the family firm, and in 1981 he joined Ragn-Sells full time. He invested in EasyMining in 2008, at first only privately, based on a “gut feeling,” In 2014, Ragn-Sells bought EasyMining outright. “I saw that what they do fit into our thinking of how to save resources,” says Sellberg.
“The long-term perspective of a family-owned company is what enables EasyMining to grow and develop,” says Cohen. Ragn-Sells, with its extensive experience in environmental management, is also willing to take the risks and challenges associated with producing new technology at large scale, he adds.
The acquisition of EasyMining, which now has 40 employees based between Uppsala, Gothenburg, and Berlin, aligns with Ragn-Sells’ long-held values. A banner in the office lobby displays a quote by Ragnar Sellberg: I see a beginning where others see an end. Ragn Sells’ and EasyMining’s mission is to help transform our linear economy—in which raw materials are collected, used, and dumped—to a circular economy in which we re-use and recirculate resources as much and for as long as possible. Our waste products contain valuable materials.
“Our strategy as a company is the belief that in the future, there will be no waste,” says Lars Lindén, Ragn-Sells’ CEO.
EasyMining’s roots are in phosphorus recovery, but it also holds patents for recovering other nutrients. Project Nitrogen (a working title) is currently being applied in partnership with BIOFOS—Denmark’s largest wastewater utility—to recover ammonium from wastewater at a demonstration plant in Copenhagen.
Ash2Salt recovers commercial salts from fly ash, which is produced from incinerating waste and usually exported or landfilled, neither of which are sustainable. The new Ash2Salt plant at Högbytorp, a few minutes from Väderholmen, will be fully operational in late 2022 through a licensed agreement with Swiss-Japanese energy-from-waste company Hitachi Zosen Nova. The plant will wash and treat fly ash at large scale to recover several types of commercial salts for de-icing roads and fertilizer, among other uses, and reduce dependence on mined salt.
But perhaps the largest opportunity for recovering nutrients such as phosphorus, right now, is in wastewater. “We want wastewater treatment plants to be the resource plants of the future,” says Pär Larshans, Ragn-Sells’ Director of Sustainability.
Dealing with wastewater—of which sewage is a subset—has been a challenge for as long as humans have gathered in great numbers. In Europe and North America, municipal sanitation systems grew out of the need to reduce typhoid and cholera outbreaks during the Industrial Revolution. London’s Great Stink of 1858—when hot weather and untreated sewage flowing into the Thames resulted in a major cholera outbreak, and made the city smell so bad that Members of Parliament soaked their curtains in chloride of lime—led to the construction of an extensive underground sewage system to convey sewage away from the population.
In the 19th century some cities began treating sewage—by settling it in lagoons, adding oxygen to reduce odor, or adding chemicals—in an effort to reduce water-borne disease outbreaks—a development that led to a huge increase in life expectancy. Starting in the 1840s, some sewage started to be applied to agricultural land as a fertilizer, with some success.
Even today’s treated wastewater contains large amounts of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen—passed from agriculture and fertilizers to food and to our own waste—which is a waste disposal challenge, because they contribute to water pollution and eutrophication, an overgrowth of algae that can turn water bodies toxic. Sewage sludge, a semi-solid byproduct of wastewater treatment, is rich in nutrients but also in pathogens, so it has to be treated before disposal or reuse for agriculture. In most cases it is incinerated, a process that started in the 1930s.
Today, “there are three reasons to incinerate sewage sludge,” explains Cohen. Incineration detoxifies the sludge of pathogens, it increases the concentration of phosphorus (there is 0.8% phosphorus in sewage sludge, but 9% phosphorus in sewage sludge ash, as compared to 1.8% in rock phosphate from Finland’s phosphorus mine), and it reduces weight and volume by 90 percent, making logistics and transport simpler.
EasyMining’s Ash2Phos process—which involves treating sewage sludge ash with a series of chemical reactions employing hydrochloric acid, alkaline, and lime—can recover 90 percent of the phosphorus in sewage sludge ash, with a more than 96% reduction in contaminant heavy metals such as cadmium and uranium. The main substance it recovers is calcium phosphate—equivalent to mined rock phosphate, but with higher purity (mined Moroccan phosphate for instance is high in cadmium).
The process also has lower carbon dioxide emissions compared to sourcing virgin resources. A life-cycle assessment study by the IVL Swedish EnvironmentalResearch Institute concluded that producing the same amount of calcium phosphorus from ash with the Ash2Phos process compared to sourcing it from non-renewable phosphate ore would save 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.
The first Ash2Phos plants—the first in the world that will recover phosphorus at this scale—are in development in Germany and Sweden. The German plant, in Schkopau, is a partnership with utilities company Gelsenwasser and is projected to be completed in 2024.
That’s the recovery side; regulations make the market side a greater challenge. There are three potential routes for the recovered phosphorus that EasyMining obtains: fertilizer, animal feed, and food additives. While the EU is facilitating a move to a circular economy, there remains a legal barrier to achieving this because current EU laws prioritize origin, rather than quality, of phosphorus and other recycled nutrients.
“EasyMining’srecycled phosphorus cannot be used for feed, no matter the quality, and cannot be used for food additives, no matter the quality, because of its origin,” says EasyMining’s Kabbe, in Vienna. This despite that the recycled phosphorus is of higher purity than that in traditional fertilizers.
Products recycled from waste can’t be used for agricultural feed for animals or for food additives. This legal taboo is a relic from the BSE (“mad cow disease”) crisis in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 90s. Back then, however, there was no significant nutrient recycling from waste to be used. “When these laws were written, nobody was doing what we are doing yet,” says Anna Lundbom, EasyMining’s marketing manager.
While there is a market for recycled nutrients for fertilizers in conventional farming, there is also still a ban on their use in organic farming. This would seem to deprive recovered phosphorus of a natural target market. What better evangelists and early adopters of a circular economy than organic farmers and their consumers?
The needle may be slowly moving on that front. The 2022 working program of the EU’s Expert Committee on Organic Farming includes the consideration of allowing some recycled nutrients in organic farming. Should the EU decide to open the directive, it will be possible to apply for an exemption from the law, explains Larshans, although ideally the law itself would change.
This change in attitude, says Larshans, could be “an important starting point for future sustainable farming.” With that shift, by 2025 EasyMining could be able to supply organic farmers with recycled organic fertilizers.
Ludwig Hermann of the European Sustainable Phosphorus Platform is a little more cautious in his optimism. “So far, nothing has happened, but some movement seems to be detectable,” he says.
There are other challenges to the wider application of nutrient recovery technology. Hermann mentions two: cost and risk perception.
“There will be a cost increase, albeit small, for phosphorus recovery, and a debate about who pays, which will probably be citizens, probably through wastewater treatment,” says Hermann. “In Austria, we have an annual bill for wastewater treatment. From 300 euros a year, it might be 303 euros,” he says.
But politicians will be reluctant to impose costs, no matter how little, he points out, particularly with the current energy and inflation issues.
At present, there is also limited experience with large-scale phosphorus- recovery. “Because it is not yet widely available, there is an additional risk perception,” says Hermann. Still, his feeling is that EasyMining’s plants in Germany and Sweden will set the ball rolling in the rest of Europe, and elsewhere.
“It is quite challenging to set up large-scale production of new processes to move to a circular economy,” says Cohen. “In addition to the main recovered product, you need to develop and find offtakes for all by-products, and in contrast to the mining industry, any disposal of residues will require, in several countries, paying landfill tax.”
It’s difficult to compete with the traditional way of producing fertilizers, he adds. For example, OCP, Morocco’s largest phosphorus producer, simply discharges the waste into the sea at low cost.
Legislation for recovering phosphorus is creating a market—in Europe at least—for wider implementation. In 2006, Switzerland enacted a law to make
the recovery of phosphorus from slaughterhouse waste and sewage sludge obligatory. Germany—which has the most sewage sludge ash in Europe—has introduced a phosphorus recovery law stipulating that wastewater treatment plants above a certain capacity will have to recover phosphorus from sewage sludge by 2029, and have a plan for doing so in 2023.
Austria has been considering a law for phosphorus recovery, but it is not yet mandatory. Still, on June 19, 2022—the day before the city hosted the ESPC— Vienna’s City Hall announced its own plans to recover phosphorus from sewage sludge ash. The City of Vienna’s local authority and Wien Energie, Austria’s largest energy provider—which already incinerates wastewater and garbage for reuse at its surreal, Hundertwasser-designed Wonka’s Chocolate Factoryof a plant in Vienna’s 9th district—plan to build and operate a plant to process sewage sludge ash by 2030.
Nicole Puzsar, head of public relations for Stadt Wien, or City of Vienna, says the first crude plans for recovering phosphorus in Vienna date back to 2015. “A well-functioning waste management economy has always been a high priority for Vienna, which also considers itself a pioneer in the field of the circular economy,” says Puzsar.
Above all, partnerships across fields and borders are necessary for moving towards nutrient recovery and to a circular economy. “Cooperation, knowledge, technology, and expertise-sharing is the key to making this work,” says Larshans. “Market demand is there, policies are on their way, but we need to speed up the process,” he adds.
EasyMining’s Kabbe describes it as a “push-pull” process between industry, innovation, and science, and getting regulators and policymakers on board. “The costs on the market level are competitive,” he says. “Now, it’sa political question.”
In Southeast Asia, the Protein Challenge is aiming for nothing less than a total transformation of regional food systems. The solution? Empowering and uniting the protein system’s various and diverse actors to create change from within.
Ee Peng Ang doesn’t miss a beat. In a storage unit at the northern tip of Singapore, the urban farmer works with a laser-like focus, plunging her bare hands into a plastic crate of compost. She rolls the dirt between her fingers: Feathery soft and pleasantly warm. She gives a curt, satisfied nod.
Ang is the co-founder of Soil Social, a Singapore-based startup that creates high-quality compost from urban and agricultural waste in a bid to improve soil quality in Singapore and beyond. “Soil is the foundation of so many things,” she says. It helps purify water, provides plants with essential nutrients, and regulates climate, among other critical roles. Soil quality also profoundly affects the outcomes of our most important crops, including chickpeas, soybeans, and other plant-based proteins. “If soil degrades physically, it’s the end of life,” Ang explains.
“It’s quite rare for people to value soil,” her co-founder Jayden Ong adds. “I feel it’s a very neglected space.” In August 2022, when the sustainability-focused international nonprofit Forum for the Future invited them to join their new initiative Protein Challenge Southeast Asia, the pair jumped at the chance. “We were very excited because it’s so important to look at the bigger picture,” says Ong.
Soil Social is precisely the kind of obsessive, idealist, mission-driven food-and- more organization that the Protein Challenge was built to support. The Protein Challenge, afterall, has big goals, aiming fornothing less thanthe transformation of the present protein food system. “We need to scale up plant-based diets and reduce animal protein production and consumption significantly for reasons such as its carbon footprint, animal ethics, and antibiotic resistance,” explains Forum for the Future’s Madhumitha Ardhanari, who leads the initiative. “However, it would be too narrow to only look at plant-based and alternative proteins in a region where so many smallholder livelihoods are dependent on animal agriculture and where demand for animal protein—especially seafood—is increasing, both for consumption and export.”
They reimagine a food system that produces proteins in a socially just and sustainable manner: One that helps restore ecosystems, respects human rights, and is resilient to economic and climate disruptions. The backbone of the Protein Challenge lies in bringing together and fostering ‘Protein Visionaries’— stakeholders who share a similar goal of what the region’s future food system could look like.
The Visionaries are as diverse as the protein options in a supermarket: farmers growing animal- and plant-based protein; food tech companies developing products derived from insects, microbes, and other alternative protein sources; investors; and policy-makers. Their ranks also include affiliated entrepreneurs like Soil Social, who don’t necessarily produce proteins per se but support their growth by helping to maintain healthy ecosystems. Ingenuity is common to many of the Visionaries, such as Muhammad Ibnur Rashad, founder of the Ground-Up Innovation Labs for Development. Rashad’s wildly inventive floating gardens use recycled shampoo bottles and a semi-porous mesh made from natural fibers to grow herbs and other edible plants in the heart of Singapore.
“We see ourselves as impact accelerators,” says Sumi Dhanarajan, Forum’s Southeast Asia managing director, “helping these actors further their impact.”
The meat of the problem
Why is a Protein Challenge needed in Southeast Asia? Global meat consumption has nearly doubled in the past 30 years from 174 to 337 million tons. Nowhere has this been more pronounced than in Asia, where demand rose by 63% between 2000 and 2019. That figure, by comparison, is less than 8% for North America, Europe, and Latin America.
“A big proportion of that growth accrues to China and India…but it also comessignificantly from Southeast Asia, from countries like Indonesia and Vietnam,” says economist Shivin Kohli, who studies alternative proteins at tech-focused consultancy Access Partnership. “Population booms and burgeoning incomes are vital factors,” he says.
By 2030, Asia will be home to 65% of the world’s middle class. “Eating meat is somewhat of a status symbol in this region,” he says. Growing income levels will lead to an 80% increase in protein demand by 2050.
Meeting those rising protein demands without radical changes in the farming system is more than a consumer issue. It’s also about climate change. For example, Asia lost 100,000 hectares of mangrove forest—an important global carbon sink—between 2000 and 2012, with shrimp production accounting for 30% of this loss.
“We definitely know that this region is going to be one of the hardest hit by the climate crisis,” says Dhanarajan. Four Southeast Asian countries — Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam — were among the top 10 countries most affected by climate change in the past 20 years. If left unchecked, climate change could shave off 11% of the region’s GDP by the end of the century, alongside a 50 to 70 cm rise in sea levels, which would threaten 77% of South- east Asians who live in coastal areas along low-lying river deltas.
Embracing the complexity
The shift to alternative proteins—those produced from plant or animal cells, especially those made in a climate-agnostic manner in labs, might help buffer some of these threats. Plant-based alternatives to beef would release up to 87% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and require 75% less water and 95% fewer land resources. The launch of vegan and vegetarian plant-based products has quadrupled in the region since 2016. But these are often spearheaded by well- funded startups. There’s a risk they may crowd out Southeast Asia’s smallholder farmers, who currently produce more than 80% of the region’s food.
While various innovators are working hard to enact changes to the existing food system, they lack the proper focus, says Dhanarajan. Many are too intent on achieving quick fixes—solutions that ramp up protein production to meet growing demand and curb food insecurity at the environment’s expense. “There’s also a tendency towards linear and siloed thinking, whereas the protein system is incredibly complex,” she says.
“The proper response to this complexity,” says Ardhanari, “is collaboration.” Her team has organized two workshops for nearly forty Protein Visionaries across various sectors. She says they designed these events to “support collaboration between changemakers” and begin piloting interventions for change. Forward thinking is a considerable part of these sessions. Ardhanari and her team encourage participants to imagine what the region’s protein system might look like in 2050—and what role they could play in its transformation.
“When you say to someone: ‘It’snot just about producing a really cool soy burger. Can you actually solve the problems of the protein system in Southeast Asia?’Clearly it’sa big question,” says Dhanarajan. “Our job is to transform this overwhelm into one where people feel inspired and say ‘Wecan do this.’”
“The trick,” she says, “is to break down the overarching aim into small, actionable steps.” Her team helps participants identify critical points in the system where they can intervene and generate the most impact. They also encourage innovators to think about the bigger picture, such as whether they can source plant-based raw material from smallholder growers to help support the latter’s livelihoods.
However, quantifying the initiative’s tangible results three years on is difficult. “When you’reworking with systems changing, it’sgot a long tail to it, so you don’tnecessarily see your impacts straightaway,” says Dhanarajan.
Significantly, the initiative has already helped establish channels for cross- disciplinary collaboration—one of the key aims the team laid out from the beginning. “No organization, however innovative or powerful, can create the change needed alone,” says Ardhanari.
For Soil Social’s Ong, this collaboration was the biggest boon. “The resources are there, but because it’s such a huge problem to tackle, it’s all a bit fragmented,” she says. “For example, I’m working on a regenerative solution. But I may not always know who to talk to to move that solution forward, be it test-bedding in certain countries or working with farmers or finding the right financial capital. [They] have the network to connect us.”
Monarch Tractor has recently launched its first line of electric tractors with its groundbreaking MK-V model—the world’s first full-electric, driver-optional, data-collecting smart tractor. Its CEO hopes the company is going to revolutionize the future of farming.
All is quiet on the farm—well, nearly. There’s none of that deafening roar usually heard from a tractor’s traditional diesel machine, brusquely plowing through fields. Instead, the MK-V model emits a lighter, clunking sound. It’s also tiny (a slender 48.4 inches, compared to 72 inches on similar machines), slipping between rows of grapes with an almost graceful dexterity. It has taken Praveen Penmetsa and his team at Monarch Tractors six years of developing, testing, breaking, and fixing to create such an elegant machine.
Penmetsa comes from a long line of southern Indian rice farmers. Little surprise then that the 45-year-old ended up working in agriculture—sort of. As CEO of Monarch Tractors, a Silicon Valley meets Napa Valley “clean farming” tech company, Penmetsa is building a brighter future for farming through electric tractors. He and his team are determined to try to make farming profitable again. And they’re doing that by offering a machine that has three advantages: Driverless, electric, and it collects data. This is a trifecta of features that, Penmetsa points out, no other company currently offers. Originally from Hyderabad, capital of southern India’s Telangana state, Penmetsa was visiting his hometown in 2012, following a long stint working for electric battery companies like Toshiba and Panasonic, specializing in electric vehicles. On that trip home, electricity kept cutting in and out, resulting in frustrating work delays and steamily hot afternoons.
Penmetsa’s mind began to wander—electric batteries store energy generated by the car. Was it such a stretch to imagine an electric car battery could power a home? “I would be thinking, oh, I wish I had that Prius we worked on, I would have power here,” he says with a smile. “But that’s a ridiculous notion.”
Still, the wheels began turning—literally. If tractors were electric and could store power in their batteries, they could be relied on when a power cut hit. Nearly 60% of India’s population works in the agricultural sector; an electrical tractor could kill two birds with one stone. “So you could use it out on the farm but also power the house in the village,” Penmetsa elaborates. It didn’t take long before he built a prototype with Zachary Omohundro, a robotics and remote systems expert, supported by grant funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). “We took it to Maharajpet, a village just outside of Hyderabad, did the training, and told the farmers, ‘Nowyou can drive it!’” he recalls. “But the farmers laughed at us and we found out that there were only two people in the entire village who knew how to drive a tractor.”
That’s when the idea to develop an autonomous tractor was born. “Farmers told us there’sno future in farming. And I thought, oh, it’sIndia; life is hard.” But Penmetsa soon realized that the same sentiment was echoed all over the world, from Hyderabad to Sacramento. “Nobody felt like there was a future in farming,” he says. “And that was the genesis for us to continue to work on this project.” In 2015, Penmetsa returned to Silicon Valley, partnering with Mark Schwager, who had worked at Tesla, and Carlo Mondavi, scion of the famous Italian-American winemaking family.
A solution to farming in crisis
The fact that life is getting increasingly difficult for farmers globally is an undeniable reality. In the United States, tighter immigration laws and the pandemic have caused the agricultural labor force to dwindle, driving up the cost of finding tractor operators—it costs roughly $30 an hour for a driver. While costs vary depending on region and crop, in the San Joaquin Valley, the rate for a driver on an almond farm in 2019 was just over $20 an hour.
“COVID demonstrated that we don’t have sufficient labor during peak periods,” explains Scott Shearer, Professor and Chair of Ohio State University’s Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department. “In rural America, it’stough to find qualified labor for those seasonal periods.” That’s where Monarch’s most significant success lies. According to their internal research, a wine grower using ten Monarch tractors for mowing, tilling and disking can save up to $79,000 a year in fuel, up to $200,000 a year in labor, and up to 500 tons of CO2 emissions annually. For farmers, that represents enormous savings.
In industrial agriculture, tractors are typically huge machines capable of farming corn, wheat and soybeans, which make up roughly half of US farm revenue. On large feed farms, farmers use combine harvester tractors, which can weigh up to 25 tons and have up to 650 horsepower. Monarch’s MK-V model is 75% lighter, weighing only 5,750 pounds.
“The shot over the bow is what we are seeing in California when it comes to lower horsepower tractors,” explains Shearer. “Some processes on farms are very well suited to electric tractors; other things are more energy intensive and it’sgoing to take more time.”
Monarch is also looking at providing farmers with their own source of electricity that can be used to either power their farm or sell back to the grid. While the tractors don’t produce energy themselves, they are able to store it, which can be used as needed. “We’re aiming for a closed-loop system,” explains Penmetsa. “We’re trying to increase rural grid resiliency.” Ten Monarch tractors can store about 1 megawatt of energy. “And a lot of our farmers have 100, 200 tractors,” says Penmetsa. “That’s a lot of extra energy.”
Thanks to the MK-V model’s battery storage capabilities, the tractor doubles as a portable power source. The battery sits up on the tractor’s hood, and although Monarch remains tight-lipped about storage size, Penmetsa discloses it was “more than a 100kWh.” (By contrast, Tesla batteries store around 3MWh.) The Monarch battery can power around ten hours of “average” farmwork, such as spraying, or five hours of “heavier” tasks, like plowing. Inbuilt power sockets on the machine can power anything from a phone to an electric car. And since most farmers have several tractors working, ten tractors would equal 1Mwh of energy storage.
After requests from farmers, Monarch engineered a battery-swapping process that one trained person can handle in under 10 minutes. With enough extra batteries, the MK-V tractor can run non-stop. As some crops have a very narrow period of time when they can be harvested, this could be a game-changer.
Driverless and Data-Driven
Monarch’s driverless option is perhaps its most impactful aspect. Tractor accidents are the leading cause of injury and death among farm workers in the United States. Tractor rollovers (when a tractor overturns on its driver) cause an average of 130 deaths every year. Experience doesn’t matter—80% of the deaths involve seasoned operators. Remote operation removes most of the danger from the equation, says Penmetsa, and farmers can manage multiple tractors at once from the Monarch app on their phones.
“Digitization of agriculture is everything,” Shearer emphasizes. “If you can’tmeasure it you can’tmanage it.” Monarch’s 360-degree cameras, mounted on the tractors and accessible to farmers at any time, feed a continuous stream of images to a central database. If something is amiss, the farmer is immediately alerted. “[Farmers] can have full traceability of what’shappening on the farm,” Penmetsa explains. “‘Whatdid we do six months ago? Is there a pest infestation on a particular row? Did we spray this row?’ Those are questions we can answer.”
Such data collection and storage capabilities are paramount for a future where an increase in unpredictable extreme weather events is resulting in catastrophic loss of crops; incredibly tight margins mean predicting crop yield is vital to making ends meet. It also means that farmers can spend less money on personnel. Yet the main difficulty for Monarch has been convincing farmers to use their tractors.
Penmetsa refutes any suggestion that the agricultural industry is slow to change. “Historically, agriculture has always been at the forefront of technology. It’sonly in the last twenty or thirty years, because of the profit margin reduction, that farmers have become extremely careful in technology investments.”Instead, with profit margins so slim, farmers cannot afford to take risks. The best way to convince them, Penmetsa says, is simply to show them.
Coming full circle
Since its launch in 2012, Monarch has raised $81 million in funding over three rounds, through venture capital and other strategic partners, including agriculture equipment giant Case New Holland. Headquarters are at Livermore, just east of San Francisco, where two large buildings house around 220 research and development employees.
In Hyderabad, there’s a team of 30, with another 15 in Singapore (with some government funding) working across data science. The geographical spread is an indication of Monarch’s global aspirations. In November 2022, Monarch received a $3 million grant from the California Energy Commission (CEC) to accelerate development and rollout. The company is now in talks with large- scale agriculture machinery companies to license their technology.
Amidst all the wins Penmetsa has had in California, though, his heart is still at his family’s farm in India. “One day I want to bring it to India,” he says with a smile. “And see it on the rice farms.”
Food providers—large-scale companies that mass-produce meals for hospitals and schools,as well as hotel groups, cities and restaurant chains—serve billions of meals annually. Despite their size, there hasn’t been nearly enough focus on how to cut their greenhouse emissions. Enter Coolfood, a one-stop solution to facilitate plant-forward, climate-friendly eating.
CLEMSON, South Carolina
Spring is in full bloom at Clemson University. Trees are budding, daffodils are pushing through fresh mulch, and a warm breeze rustles the grass. Inside the Schilletter Dining Hall, nestled under towering oaks of this Southern university, things are also turning green.
“When I was a kid, our local favorite was the ‘bird dog,’” Natalie Pritchard, Executive Chef of Student Dining, says with a laugh. A mess of bacon bits, chopped chicken, and ranch dressing sandwiched in a hot dog bun, it looks nothing like the veggie-forward sweet potato and corn pizza she’s currently rustling up.
The finishing touch is fresh thyme and sage, sourced from less than a mile away at Clemson’s new hydroponic micro-farm. Pritchard slides the flat-crust pizza into the brick oven, and the cheese starts to bubble. The staff will serve it alongside a special placard emblazoned with a small green degree. That label indicates it’s a Coolfood recipe, a sign to students that their meal is a more climate-friendly option.
At a nearby table, four freshmen tuck into their lunch. None of the young men identifies as vegetarians—they all know, and love, the bird dog.
But meat isn’t their main focus, either. One is eating a vegetarian pizza. “If it tastes good, we’ll eat it,” says student Tom Kiernan.
Aramark, Pritchard’s employer, has served meals to Clemson University students for over 50 years. Last year, the company teamed up with Coolfood, an initiative run by the non-profit organization World Resources Institute, to serve meals that have, on average, 38% fewer emissions than the average American meal. Aramark also took the Coolfood Pledge, a commitment to reduce their food related GHG emissions by 25% to 2030.
Aramark is one of the world’s largest food service providers, serving more than three million higher education students on nearly 300 campuses annually. For years, Aramark has been increasing their meat-free meal options to serve its younger customers better. But their current goals are now more climate oriented: cutting 25% of its food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
50% of Aramark’s total greenhouse gas emissions came from sourcing food. “We knew we could bring that down dramatically,” says Alan Horowitz, the vice president of sustainability at Aramark. “Coolfood offered us a ‘one-stop solution’ to do just that.”
‘How do we feed 10 billion people by 2050?’
The idea for Coolfood started with a research question: how will we feed 10 billion people sustainably by 2050?
Back in 2015, a few sustainability experts at World Resources Institute, including Richard Waite, started investigating. The organization was interested in climate change, specifically in setting “science-based” targets to slow climate change by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Two things were clear from the outset. One-quarter of the world’s carbon emissions come from food production, and two-thirds of those emissions come from food sourced from animals. A lot of conversations around food focus on individual choices around plant-based eating. But researchers knew that realistically addressing climate change wouldn’t simply boil down to people choosing to eat more plants. It would also require food providers to nudge people towards those choices by making smarter food-sourcing decisions themselves.
Bringing large food providers on board wasn’t as challenging as one might expect. Most large corporations already have sustainability commitments of some kind in place. And WRI has a reputation, forty years strong, for developing green solutions that appeal to large-scale businesses. When WRI announced Coolfood, they found—almost immediately—ten food providers hungry to reduce their food-related carbon footprint, unsure how to do it, and eager to collaborate.
“There’sthis credibility… and integrity about WRI that is obviously very important” to large companies,” says Anne Bordier, who leads the Coolfood team of twelve data and sustainability experts.
Over 60 major food providers, like MAX Burgers and IKEA, have joined the Coolfood pledge: to reach a 25% absolute reduction in food-related GHGemissions by 2030. Using their food purchase data, Coolfood tracks the 3 billion meals a year currently served by its Pledge members, each one a contributor to reducing carbon emissions. In total, Coolfood’s tools and expertise are used by organizations serving 8 billion meals a year. The group has an ambition to increase that to 12 billion meals a year by 2025.
Digging into the numbers
One of Coolfood’s main tools is its research-based greenhouse gas calculator. It helps companies understand their food-related carbon footprint. The calculator is based on the latest guidance from the Science Based Targets initiative, a corporate campaign helping businesses align with practices from the United Nations’ Paris Agreement (WRI is also a key member of this initiative).
The program considers how much emissions are produced from indicators like animal feed, food transport, processing, packaging, and even food “loss” that occurs before a company like Aramark purchases it.
The need for greenhouse gas emission reduction is critical. In order to achieve the Paris Agreement goal to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degree Celsius, Coolfood says that emissions from food will need to drop by 25% to 2030.
Plus, as Waite points out, “There are going to be more people on the planet… and global food demand is projected to grow by 21% between 2015 and 2030. We really have to take that into account.”
It comes down to basic, albeit rather chilling, math: If the world needs to reduce absolute food-related emissions by 25%, while accommodating a 21% growth in food demand, our per plate emissions goal for 2030 should actually be a 38% reduction.
With this in mind, Coolfood identified 23 best-bet behavioral “nudges” that food providers can implement to encourage consumers to choose more plant-friendly options. Those nudges range from free samples of plant-rich dishes to briefing front-of- house food staff on engaging talking points to entice diners.
Scalability and climate education
When Coolfood launched in 2019, it had 10 members; that number has now increased to almost 70 in four years. More importantly, the companies themselves are bigger players. Corporate behemoths aren’t best known for quickly pivoting, but their industrial impact is exactly why Coolfood is targeting them.
“We want scale here,” says Bordier. “We’re trying to… reach those big organizations that serve millions of meals a day.”
That first cohort, which included companies like IKEA, collectively reduced its emissions by 21% per plate. The changes were small and manageable: increasing the share of plant based foods on the average plate by 3%, and reducing the share of beef and lamb by 1%. This early cohort is on track to meet its pledged goals. Other adopters that joined Coolfood since 2021, which include Aramark, are still rolling out the program. “It’s just too early to accurately track the reduction in carbon footprint in the rollout of Coolfood meals,” says Aramark’s Horowitz. Last year, Clemson was part of a pilot program in which Aramark tested its implementation at just one of the ten North American universities it serves. A rollout for all 1’500 of Aramark’s US-based sites started in early 2023.
Working with so many colleges, hospitals, and corporate centers across a wide range of cultural and political environments hasn’t always been easy. But Aramark doesn’t necessarily see that as a barrier.
“We are not the climate police,” says Horowitz. “We have our own commitments, and we embrace those commitments. But take the University of Kentucky, that school has a program to promote local cattle farmers. That’s fine. We are happy to accommodate. This is not a monolith implementation.”
The Coolfood program is designed to be inclusive of food service providers from around the world. Aramark is a $16 billion company that serves meals in 20 countries. But educational settings closer to home, explains Horowitz, open the door for Coolfood to make an impact beyond the environment.
“In my mind, that is the next frontier,” says Horowitz, who anticipates that Aramark will soon integrate the Coolfood program into their operations serving K-12 school districts. “The real opportunity here is serving these meals as a form of education, even to 4th to 5th graders.”
After all, isn’t the conversation on climate change ultimately about the world we are leaving behind for our children? What better way, then, to lighten our impact on the world, one meal at a time.
A team of chefs and scientists in southern Spain are trying to cultivate an edible sea grain for the first time. Can Aponiente’s “sea pantry” fight global food insecurity and be used for conservation purposes?
EL PUERTO DE SANTA MARIA, Spain
Tucked away in Spain’s southwest corner, the seaside town of El Puerto de Santa Maria is best known for its past. Once considered “the city of a hundred palaces,” what remains are crumbling facades and the dubious distinction of having one of the country’s highest unemployment rates. It’s an unlikely place to find a three-Michelin-starred restaurant at the forefront of marine grain cultivation, but Chef Ángel León has never been one to conform.
It’s early March, and León is preparing to reopen Aponiente (“facing West”) for the season with characteristic energy. With its focus on experimental fine dining, Aponiente has been a beacon for fine dining fanatics since it first opened in 2007. This season, as in all others, the diners will come from around the globe, eager to try avant-garde dishes made from discarded fish parts, macroalgae, plankton or marine vegetables. In preparation, forty-two cooks are chopping and sauteing while a team of cleaners carefully wipe the glass doors and windows that look out on the marsh.
Among the crew at Aponiente, two stick out: Juan Martín and Sofía Rivaes. They aren’t chefs or sommeliers; Martín is an environmental scientist and Rivaes is a biologist. They are part of a small team helmed by León that has embarked on an ambitious project to domesticate an aquatic plant called Zostera marina. They are animated by the belief that if properly cultivated in estuaries, Zostera could help alleviate the global food crisis, improving the outlook for a world in which an estimated 345.2 million people currently suffer from food insecurity. Zostera would be a new grain that can be cooked similarly to rice, but with higher protein and fiber levels, and grown with a much lower climate footprint with no need for irrigation. To León—and others who support his project—it is a source of hope.
“There is a whole marine pantry to be explored,” says León. While there’s been much focus on turning to insects to feed a growing population on a planet with dwindling resources, few have looked to our waters for solutions. Seafood represents 17% of the current production of edible meat, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). But with land under rising pressure from desertification and the need to restore ecosystems to fight climate change, there isn’t much more sustainable space left for additional food production. The aquaculture sector, which the FAO says overtook industrial fishing as the world’s primary source of water-based food about a decade ago, is an intriguing solution.
An ancient solution for the future
Growing up by the sea, León always thought he would become a fisherman. Instead, he studied culinary arts in Seville and had a remarkable career in gastronomy, becoming one of the most acclaimed chefs in Spain. He had always been drawn to maritime ingredients, but it wasn’t until 2018 that he first heard about Zostera’s edible grain and ancient past. In pre-colonial times, the Seri indigenous people in Mexico collected Zostera— also known as sea wheat—in the Sonoran desert. They never farmed it; they harvested it from naturally-growing ecosystems.
León could immediately foresee the culinary advantages this neutral-flavored sea cereal could offer. Then there was its nutritional value: A low-fat, protein-rich source of calories, Zostera’s grain contains 17 times more fiber than rice and twice as much fiber as lentils, wheat and millet.
Unlike rice, which humans have cultivated for millennia, Aponiente’s initiative “is the first time someone is trying to grow Zostera in captivity to obtain its grain,” says marine ecologist Carlos Duarte, a distinguished professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and an expert on the species.
In 2018, León and Martín began looking for estuaries and abandoned saltpans, areas where seawater gathers and evaporates. They hired a team of scientists from University of Cádiz to facilitate learning how to grow Zostera in the Bay of Cádiz’s tidal marshes, and enlisted a professional shellfish harvester, Ricardo Ariza, to take care of the plantation. So far, León has invested over €350,000 ($380,000 USD) in testing Zostera cultivation in various estuaries along the bay, and his team is also studying how to grow Zostera in tidal marshes. They refuse to use fertilizers and pesticides. The goal is to revive these man-made ecosystems following Cádiz’s traditional salt farming techniques: Managing the hydrodynamics using walls and gates to control the tide.
Duarte notes that these ecosystems naturally exist in the Spanish Atlantic as well, in the Bay of Cádiz and in the south of Portugal. The problem in Spain, he says, is that centuries of human-driven coastal modifications have shrunk Zostera’s natural habitat. Fernando Brun, a researcher at University of Cádiz who is also growing the plant in captivity, has seen Zostera almost completely disappear from Andalusia (the southern Spanish region that is home to Cádiz and Aponiente). “A few known populations remain in the inner sac of the Bay of Cádiz, but very few square meters,” Brun says.
The environmental impact
The collaboration between the restaurant and the University of Cádiz ended in 2020, though each has continued their research independently. León’s project focuses mainly on “raising awareness with a fork” and communicating the sea’s capacity to fight food insecurity. The University of Cádiz researchers seek to cultivate Zostera mainly for conservation purposes, to repopulate the Bay of Cádiz’s seafloor. The ideal scenario for Zostera’s recovery, says Brun, would involve protecting the existing populations, promoting its ex situ conservation by creating nurseries, and developing restoration and reforestation programs in areas where it was once present.
Martín and Rivaes are equally interested in the ecosystem benefits of the Zostera plantation. As opposed to rice farming, which accounts for 12% of global methane emissions, Zostera is a potential ally in the climate crisis. It has the capacity to sequester carbon: Seagrass meadows account for less than 0.2% of the seafloor, but are responsible for sequestering 10% of the annual carbon stored in the oceans. Seagrass meadows sequester carbon at more than20 times the long term rate of terrestrial forests.
Zostera can also fix the ground’s substrate and prevent coastal erosion, as well as provide shelter for fish spawning in tidal marshes. These biodiverse salt-water lagoons also offer climatic and tidal stability in an area safe from predators. When wetlands aren’t managed properly, especially in a warming world, theyare an outsized source of methane and other climate-harming gasses. That can’t happen from growing Zostera in tidal marshes, Duarte notes, as these ecosystems are saltwater wetlands.
What León calls Aponiente’s “sea pantry” is operational in six estuaries, two using Zostera. The goal is to scale their formula for large-scale use, at which point they’ll go public with their research. This open-source mentality hasn’t necessarily helped find private investors, who are more interested in patents. “But we don’twant to withhold that information, we want to share it so that everyone can grow this grain,” Martín explains.
Rising to the challenge
León’s initiative to bring back almost obsolete traditional aquaculture practices—playing with hydrodynamics to develop chemical-free seafood farming—is also a direct response to the urbanization of Spain’s coastline. Thanks to mass tourism development, over 15% of Cádiz’s coastline has been degraded since the 1960s. Agriculture and industrial activities have resulted in 42% of the Bay of Cádiz tidal marshes draining. Researchers estimate that almost all of the 129 existing saltpans located in the bay are now completely abandoned.
“These ecosystems are very dependent on human activity and, if they are abandoned, they lose their environmental value,” says ecologist Ignacio Hernández, who directs the University of Cádiz’s biology department.
Hernández believes in the importance of building a Zostera nursery to repopulate the area, and to eventually consume its grain. But, he warns, it’s not as easy as planting and harvesting. Zostera has a wide distribution range, but one that is limited to just the Northern Hemisphere. “That means that the plant is always going to be a bit stressed in water temperatures that are in the borderline,” Hernández says. He also points to the plant’s low reproductive capacity. Only 1–10% of Zostera seeds germinate successfully and give rise to viable seedlings.
Its potential, however, is clear. “Unlike rice, it doesn’thave to be sown every year. Once the seagrass meadow is established it can flower and produce grain without seeding,” Rivaes explains. Seagrass meadows are among the most profitable ecosystems, with an estimated value of between €30,000–35,000 per hectare per year, “much higher than the €2,000–2,500 per hectare per year of tropical forests,” he notes.
Duare envisions Zostera’s potential domestication in the long run, but, for now, he says all we can expect from Aponiente’s initiative are controlled plantations for food production—pioneering but largely inaccessible. To be scalable, all of Zostera’s benefits—including carbon sequestration, coastline protection, and habitat architecture—will have to be considered, rather than just its capacity to feed people. “Alone, food production is unlikely to be profitable,” he adds.
Despite its strong potential to mitigate food insecurity and the twin crises of climate and biodiversity, Aponiente Sea Pantry has yet to receive any public funding. But León is determined to carry out his initiative with or without aid.
“We are stubborn. We will discover how to tame the plant, and we will share that knowledge so that everyone can grow it,” León says. “We will leave that window open in an uncertain future where humanity will have no choice but to open their eyes, look at the sea and understand that there may be grains in it.”
In rural British Columbia, Catalyst Agri-Innovations Society is harnessing the power of poop.
ABBOTSFORD, BRITISH COLUMBIA—
It takes no more than an Uber ride with the window down across Abbotsford, B.C. to notice that you are in Canada’s agricultural capital. The scent of Cedar and Spruce that envelops most of the Fraser Valley, the Southwestern region of British Columbia that neighbors Washington State, is overpowered by the farm smells of wheat, fresh grass and, especially, cow feed—in all parts of its cycle.
The odor of cow manure grows faint to new visitors after a few days, and some locals don’t detect it at all, but, despite living in the area for years, Chris Bush couldn’t leave it alone. That odor was a sign of a problem with local agriculture; one he wondered if he could fix.
Back then, he was an account manager losing interest in his job selling two-way radios at a regional telecom company. One night, trying to disconnect from work, he read a sidebar story in Popular Science Magazine about a farm in Vermont that made electricity from cow manure—the same dung he’d get a faint whiff of every morning on his drive to work. A lightbulb turned on in his mind.
“We have massive amounts of manure lying around, and our environment is suffering from it,” he says. “It seemed to me like there was a gigantic gap between what is being done and what’s possible here in Abbotsford.”
Bush was right. The chickens and cows of the province of British Columbia produce nearly three billion kilograms of manure every year: about enough to fill a full-sized American football stadium to its top. And Abbotsford, with its 25,000 cows and nine million chickens, produced far more waste than the city of 160,000 people could handle. Much of it would get shipped to the prairies as fertilizer or, worse, dumped in abundance on local crops and nearby rivers, filling the soil, air, and water with methane: a compound that, liter for liter, traps 80 times more heat in our atmosphere than the carbon dioxide puffing from our car exhausts. Cow waste would even trickle down the Abbotsford aquifer and flow downstream towards Washington State at a rate that made American farmers complain about their up-north neighbors. Abbotsford had a manure problem, and Bush wanted to deal with it.
He wondered if there was a way to make good use of all that manure. It was a prescient thought: recycling on-site farm waste would only become a more relevant global challenge in the 15 years to come. The nitrogen fertilizer used by many farmers then and now—the kind that tripled global grain production over the last 50 years—continues to dwindle in its supply, even before supplies from Russia became squeezed by the war. Couple a worldwide fertilizer shortage with a supply chain still wobbly from the pandemic, and you get expensive and scarce food for plants and, in consequence, smaller crop sizes.
Bush was fascinated by how some small farms fermented their manure and transformed it into fertilizer, all while capturing the methane in the waste and using it to power their homes. But many of these farms did so in isolation. He wondered if he could find a way to scale the transformation of manure into gas and fertilizer, to serve many farms at once.
The key to his dream was something called a biogas plant, which is a network of oxygen-free tanks called anaerobic digesters that take in manure and ferment it at nearly 40 degrees Celsius for three to four weeks. The process replicates what happens in a cow’s third stomach: the manure separates into solid and gas. When that happens in the stomach of a cow, it farts. A biogas plant, in contrast, turns that gas into usable fuel and funnels it into the power grid. And as a bonus: the solid that remains is odorless and can be used as fertilizer for crops.
Some farms in British Columbia were using small biogas plants, and the technology was particularly strong in Europe. But to do this on a grander scale, he would need to build an industrial-sized biogas plant. The price tag: around $6 million. He needed to win over his neighbors, some of whom were worried about the smell or traffic. More than anything, though, he needed investors, but the idea was so new in the mid-aughts that there wasn’t even terminology for the kind of zero-carbon farming he was contemplating.
“Back then, nobody had the sexy language,” says Bush. “I’d tell people I want to power the city with cow poop, and they’d look at me like I was a nutjob.”
Still, Bush could not shake the idea. So, in the wake of the 2008 recession, he sold the family home and moved with his wife, eight-year-old twin boys, and six-year-old daughter to East Abbotsford. With the remaining equity from his house, his entire savings of $500,000, and $4 million in research grants and investor money that he finally tracked down, he built a farm and a biogas plant, with the goal of powering community homes with Abbotsford’s abundance of manure.
“We had planned another baby, but went for the anaerobic digester instead… we even had a picture of it next to those of the kids on our fridge,” he says. “We put everything into this.”
Bush’s initial results, especially for an ex-telecom specialist, were auspicious. It took him barely two years to build a working biogas plant, capture energy from cow droppings and convert it to electricity. In 2010, his plant became the first in North America to extract gas from cow manure and sell it to utility from a farm—the 126th plant on earth to do so, he says with a grin.
What would eventually make his plant special, he thought, was scale. Many biogas systems across the world already produced enough energy to sustain themselves. Bush had a grander idea: what if he eventually developed a biogas plant that could power an entire community? Arguably, no country needed this technology more than Canada, one of the top manure-producing countries in the world, without a blueprint to dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way.
The investment was huge, but the finances appeared simple: he had to produce $2,500 of gas per day for six months to break even. Any profits would go toward funding his brainchild, the Catalyst Agri-Innovations Society: a consortium of people dedicated to advancing the environmental and economic sustainability of agriculture, hopefully, one day based in a research and innovation center.
But his operation soon struggled: in the first 18 months, it averaged only $1,000 in profits per day. People were not buying the gas; machines would often break and need repair; and Bush, experimenting with cow, hog, and chicken manure, was still far away from nailing the recipe for maximum gas production.
“Every month, I’d sell off a little more to my investor group to keep the plant going, and then when I ran out of shares to sell, I had to sell the plant. Financially, it was catastrophic for me… I was broken when it died.”
A former business partner bought the biogas plant from Bush in 2012, giving the then demoralized 40-year-old the chance to cleanly exit the farming world and start fresh. But Bush found himself unable to walk away from his goal: he figured his idea was the right one, but that it just needed better execution.
“I recognized I am an addict to this vision. I mean, I had already sold the house,” he says.
“It had become more important for me that the project worked than that economically I survived. We need this. The world needs this.”
Now, 15 years after reading the Popular Science Magazine sidebar, and ten years after losing much of his life’s savings, Bush remains at work, and the Catalyst Agri-Innovations Society is alive as a four-person operation.
On most days, Bush drives ten minutes westbound from the home he now rents with his wife to the Bakerview Farm Eco-dairy, a small dairy farm with a biogas plant that he and his team now use as a research headquarters. The parking lot there is full of families, gathered around the front-facing on-site ice cream shop.
“The front end is what pulls the people in. Us,” he says with a slight smile, “we work at the back end.”
Behind the ice cream shop is a modest-looking collection of barns engulfed in a scent of manure that penetrates even the hardened nostrils of any local Abbotsfordian. A blue-grey barn on the right houses 50 cows, each with a yellow name tag on their right ear. Colleen, Alexis, Daffodil, and their contemporaries all face away from a dung-caked pit lined with a steel trough, which carries the fresh cow waste outside towards a network of bungalow-sized barns and trailers.
“You have to follow the poop to see the magic,” says Bush.
The eco-dairy is more eco than dairy: the buildings behind the cow barn hide the biggest active anaerobic digestion facility in all of Canada. Trailers propped up on two-foot stilts and packed with scientific equipment.
Those trailers contain $5M CAD ($3.8M USD) worth of equipment: 15 half-liter bottles connected to a chromatograph and monitor, eight 20-liter vats kept inside cupboards, two cylindrical 400-liter anaerobic digesters lining the walls, and six 1500-liter digesters kept inside a 38-degree fermentation room in the back. In its own barn is one big horizontal 85,000-liter digester that Bush calls Bertha.
Each container is filled with a fermenting, charcoal-colored manure mixture—roughly three parts cow, chicken, and hog excrement, and one-part industrial food processing waste—Bush calls it poop soup.
The machines take 25 days to digest the mix and funnel its gas into the utility grid. Ultimately the gas powers 1000 homes and businesses across the province. The manure, meanwhile, after it gets stripped of its methane, becomes environmentally-friendly fertilizer for nearby crops.
Bush is no longer solo on his mission to make waste less wasteful: he has teamed up with James Irwin, a serial entrepreneur, bio-chemist, and CEO of the agricultural research corporation Point 3 Biotech Corp. Before joining forces with Bush, Irwin used anaerobic digestion on microalgae to extract astaxanthin, an antioxidant with a red pigment that he yielded so purely it would sometimes come out as purple.
“A few people said, hey, you’re like the Walter White of Precision Agriculture,” says Irwin, “because of the blue meth, or whatever. I don’t know—I’ve never watched the show.”
Irwin had also used anaerobic digestion on microalgae to make biodiesel, and later to convert fats from agricultural waste into renewable natural gas. Bush wondered if the scientist’s expertise in collecting usable gas from organic materials would complement his own goals. So, they became business partners.
“Chris is the visionary at Catalyst, and I bring the research,” says Irwin. “He is building the car, and I’m assembling the pieces.”
The team expanded again in the last three years by hiring lab technician Travis Scott, and principal investigator Suman Adhikary, then a Concordia master’s graduate and previously a lecturer at Sonargaon University in Bangladesh. Adhikary’s job, complex in application, sounds simple in theory: create the best manure recipe for gas production.
“Now we try a bunch of recipes to put in the digesters,” says Adhikary. “Sometimes it’s half-chicken with 20 percent cow and hog. Sometimes it’s less chicken because too much chicken manure produces enough ammonia to inhibit methane production. Sometimes it’s mostly cow… we’re still tinkering.”
Adhikary and the team iterate their mixture based on their own findings and the outcomes that emerge from European plants. Bush has traveled overseas to consult with his Swedish and German counterparts about their own mixtures of choice and is closely following new work from Germany that uses green hydrogen to convert carbon dioxide into methane and increase the overall gas yield from digesters.
While Catalyst primarily uses the plant for research, it is still performing much better than Bush’s first iteration.
“It’s simple: more gas, more money, and this plant is making $5,000 a day,” he says. “Financially, though, we still haven’t recovered from 2012.”
The final part of Bush’s vision requires a little collaboration with the neighbors. The team at Catalyst has an idea of converting their demonstrative research project into a community-scale manure management initiative, in which they would have large community biogas plants built to digest and ferment manure of several local farms. The plants would be co-owned: Catalyst would be responsible for their maintenance and upgrades, while the farmers would operate the machine. Bush figures such partnerships would be win-win-wins: farmers who face increasing pressure to restrict their environmental damage would receive professional help in mitigating their footprint, Catalyst would grow its business, and ultimately, Mother Nature would benefit, too.
“That way, farmers don’t have to go into it blindly and risk building a biogas plant by themselves—I know what that’s like,” says Bush. “Here, we’d both share the risk and the reward.”
It’s easy to get local farmers and businesses to buy into small-scale collaborations, like collecting grains from local breweries to feed cows, which Bush does regularly. But the bigger ideas, like powering your home with gas from animal waste, or convincing a farmer to build a multi-million-dollar anaerobic digester on their farm, tend not to be as easily adopted. Resistance to change is the biggest hurdle Bush’s ideas continue to face.
“When it comes to innovations in agriculture, the potential users need to be sure whatever is new is bulletproof before they make a move,” says Mike Manion, an executive in residence with agri-business accelerator IAFBC Agri business accelerator. “Change, without years of investigation and proof that it works, can make farmers fearful.”
But the province’s farming industry, according to experts, is in dire need of fixing. The Canadian federal government announced in July it was looking for ways to cut fertilizer emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Local fertilizer is already running low. The pandemic and extreme weather of the last few years, which included record-breaking forest fires and destructive floods, compromised common supply chains with the prairies and California, and made fertilizer prices in the province skyrocket, says Lenore Newman, Director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley.
“As a result, we’re in unprecedented territory in food loss in B.C. and in Canada: last winter, across the province, we had no lettuce on our shelves,” she says. “The only way we can ensure there is food security here is to produce domestically, more intensively, and year-round.”
For those reasons, using local waste to grow more crops without spewing methane into the air could become paramount. Couple that with a provincial renewable gas subsidy program for B.C. residents to power their homes with biogas, and it would seem that the technology’s moment has arrived.
“At all levels of new farming tech, it takes that sort of government push to see progress,” says Manion. “I keep trying to encourage Chris, because his ideas were about 15 years ahead of the curve, and now the environment is different out there… people just might start paying more attention to his work.”
Manion sees the immediate importance of in-house manure fermentation: making one’s own fertilizer can help protect against global supply issues. But there are still only three working digesters in all of B.C. For the technology to become mainstream, it must first become cheaper and adopted by more trailblazers. If the research efforts at Catalyst lead to installing more industrial-sized, trusted, affordable biogas plants on nearby farms, it could open the floodgates.
“We need solutions to make home-grown fertilizer,” he says. “Agriculture is at a precipice—a turning point—and they might just be at the forefront of it.”
Thirty minutes inland from Abbotsford and the Bakerview eco-dairy, in the mountainside agricultural city of Chilliwack, is a massive construction site that is slowly developing the largest biogas plant in Canada. Once ready, the plant is expected to produce enough energy from manure to power approximately 4,000 homes, and also to recover nine million gallons of water per year from manure remnants via reverse osmosis and mineral rebalancing. Once operational, it will dwarf Bush’s research facility in gas production.
The $40-million CAD ($30.5M USD) project was just an idea in George Dick’s mind back in 2008, when the entrepreneur and dairy farmer at Dicklands Farms came across a magazine article about Bush’s own biogas project.
“I thought, where did this guy come from? We have the same idea!” says Dick. “And he’s going through with it.”
Dick paid close attention to Bush’s trailblazing attempt to build a plant in the early 2010s, and witnessed the project’s first iteration bleed money and go out of business.
“I saw Chris fail… it was such a new technology, and we knew even less about it then than we do now,” says Dick. “Someone had to take those first steps forward, even if they were risky.”
After a decade of research, fundraising, and building, Dick is now months away from seeing his own years-long project come to life: the Dicklands Farms biogas plant is expected to be up and running by April 2023. If the plant functions as expected, it may be Dick, and not Bush, that will be remembered as the father of biogas in British Columbia, and possibly in Canada.
“The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese,” says Bush. “Sometimes that’s the price of going first.”
But to Bush, a successful outcome at Dicklands Farms would feel like a win nonetheless. He wants he and his partners at Catalyst to pioneer research into biogas farming and scale their own operation, but more than anything, he wants his city’s manure problem to be solved. Whether he is the face of the movement or the shoulders on which another innovator will stand, he longs to see the vision that pulled him away from his regular life materialize.
Besides, he says, the stakes are higher than personal glory.
“More than anything, this is about a mission: powering the world and solving one of the grand challenges of humanity,” he says.
“I’ll be the guy to lead it, or I’ll be a soldier on somebody else’s team. Either way, I’m calling this my life’s work.”
So much of American life can be improved by reducing food waste. ReFED can help.
TRUCKEE, CALIFORNIA, USA
Dana Gunders is groan-laughing, despite herself. For the last hour, the conversation in a Truckee, California, grocery store café lounge has focused on the impact of food waste on human beings and our environment, “food waste” appearing at first blush to be a mild, if approachable term for a few ingredients not making it into a dinner recipe at their peak. In fact, food waste refers to a massive systemic issue across every aspect of how we make, transport, buy, prepare, and dispose of food and its byproducts. Gunders, as executive director of ReFED, the leading nonprofit in this arena, is constantly thinking about the food we don’t eat: the produce that rots in fields unharvested or in transport to point of sale, the bulk purchases that expire in hotel and restaurant walk-ins, the ugly fruit at the farmer’s market that never gets chosen, the government-mandated portions in school lunches that may not be a fit for your 8-year-old’s appetite.
How to talk about food waste, it turns out, is a major part of resolving a crisis that denies access that millions of people could have to affordable healthy food, contributes to high quantities of greenhouse emissions, and increases the cost of food overall. And so, if there is anything funny to be said about food waste, it’s that the term doesn’t convey the scope of the challenge. “It’s a terrible term,” Gunders says, her laugh extending into a sigh as she slides the base of her palm across her eyelids. “People understand it very quickly, though not always correctly.”
It could be said that the United States has consistently struggled to manage its food system effectively and consistently. In 2021, as one marker, more than ten percent of Americans (13.5 million households) weren’t sure whether they’d have food on a given day. And yet, the U.S. tosses out about 35% of its food supply, or about 80 million tons, a number that Gunders describes as “ridiculous.” She considers other terms: “We talk about ‘surplus food’ a lot because it’s not waste until you waste it, right? What we really want is for there to be less surplus in the first place, and then for it not to go to waste.”
The good news about food waste is that, at least by Gunders’ standards, nobody wakes up committed to throwing food away. In a society where the bottom lines are treated as gospel, no business wants to buy food unnecessarily and have it not be consumed. Since its beginnings seven years ago, ReFED has been the sole national nonprofit dedicated to significantly reducing food waste, with aims to cut that 80 million ton in half by 2030. This won’t just save food, it could limit global warming and remake the food system into something far more inclusive and not inherently mired in systemic injustices.
To study food waste is to realize how it touches, and is touched by, every part of our lives.
From data to action
ReFED first formed in 2015, but its history really started with a foundational report that came a year later: the 2016 Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent. It was part analysis, part action plan, and part acknowledgment of the severity of the issue. “It’s really about examining the food system to understand where waste is designed into it,” Gunders said. “And how do we find ways to design it out?”
It also introduced one of the core creative tensions facing the organization: how to produce data, great data even, but always with an eye on making sure that data translates into action. “Lord knows we don’t want to sit around and create reports that sit on shelves and nobody uses,” says Gunders. “Our ultimate goal is to have people do stuff with that information.”
First things first. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure”, as Gunders puts it, so the organization compiled data sets and built an open-source data and insights engine. A robust toolkit that’s been used by government agencies, retailers, farmers, and many other stakeholders, the engine allows users to discover what actual documented issues currently exist, to research existing solutions and providers working on those issues now, and to calculate what impact those efforts may have.
One key action it’s meant to spur is donation. Impact investors, notably Jesse Fink, the founder of Priceline, were at the heart of the organization’s founding. Current funders include huge corporations and foundations like General Mills, Hellmann’s, Deloitte, and the Walmart Foundation. That insights engine? Sponsored by the Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation. This June’s announcement that ReFED would help launch the $100M Circular Food Solutions Funding Platform was the culmination of years of efforts to build structures around how they channel money.
“Anyone who’s interested in this topic, anyone who’s a funder, can participate in education and deal flow,” says Gunders. “And anytime an organization is looking for money, we put that on a list and send it out to all of these groups and it helps kind of grease the wheels of the whole system.”
Emily Broad Leib, Founding Director of the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, says ReFED is a critical platform for everyone interested in attacking this problem. “ReFED is really at the center of building that ecosystem, of maintaining that network, and keeping all the other stakeholders engaged,” she says. “They’re the group that’s field-building, the hub for all the spokes in this issue.”
Leib helps maintain the policy finder for ReFED, in part because the ReFED site is the most visible space in the food waste community, a digital watering hole for powerful groups who want to help and groups on the ground who are already helping.
So despite their relatively small size—just 20 employees—ReFED seems well positioned to effect change throughout the entire food system. Which would be nice, since, well, the system is so convoluted, so far from ideal. Take, for example, food waste and hunger. Right now, food banks, soup kitchens and churches rely heavily on food donations to feed those who are food insecure, a group that disproportionately comprises communities of color. So food waste… fights hunger?
“If I were going to design the food system from scratch,” says Gunders. “I would not design it so that the way we feed people who can’t feed themselves is to just over-buy and over-consume and then [donate the food] later in its life… what we really want is a food system that’s so efficient that we don’t have that surplus. And acknowledge that it is our social responsibility to have everyone in our country fed.”
She describes meeting a leader in food surplus issues in the Netherlands who was perplexed even at the idea of donating large amounts of uneaten food. There simply aren’t enough hungry mouths to feed in a country that prioritizes feeding the poor. So instead, they can focus sharply on reducing surplus without worrying about downstream impacts on hunger.
But that is the Netherlands. In the United States, tackling food waste can involve a very delicate political and economic dance. Gunders recently testified in front of Congress and says that Michelle Obama’s 2012 school lunch guidelines came up, once again. The familiar talking point was that anyone who put more fresh vegetables in school lunches must not be against food waste, since children just throw the vegetables out. “It’s not okay to use waste as this argument against feeding people well,” says Gunders. “How about this: make the food taste better.”
For all the institutional and financial muscle of ReFED, though, one of their greatest assets is the understanding that big fixes in food waste sometimes start small. Yes, there are large-scale packaging solutions, and more private sector technology deployed against food waste than ever (food waste tech companies raised $1.9B in 2021, shattering old records). But according to Harvard’s Leib, small-scale, sometimes even personal, solutions are key.
“The actual process of addressing food waste happens at a local scale,” Leib says. “If we want to meet the 2030 goal of reducing food waste by 50%, we’re not going to get there unless we leverage what other people are doing on the ground. Some solutions are low-tech, and for those it’s about getting the message out. Otherwise, you’re just reinventing the wheel throughout the country.”
As Gunders puts it, ReFED is by design very “manual” on the solutions side. “We’re just reaching out as we hear about cool things that people are doing or cool companies or cool nonprofits that are doing something in this space,” she says. “Then we extrapolate from there: if scaled up, this could actually save, for example, 40 tons of food across the country and here’s how much it would cost to do it, and here’s how many greenhouse gases would be saved… it’s all a model we’re estimating, but we’re trying to paint some kind of picture to help people prioritize what they can do.”
Individual choice is also a confounding factor. Gunders says her favorite stat comes from a survey that found that 75% of Americans waste less food than the average American. That is, people always underestimate how much food they themselves waste. What they don’t realize is that small choices, such as putting out an overabundance of food at a house party, may make them feel good, may even be key to their self-identity as good hosts, but should be viewed also in light of food waste. Your individual desire to not leave any guest potentially hungry is closely related to desire that shoppers have to see supermarket shelves always full, even if that means guaranteed food waste or the resulting higher prices. Expectations and behavior alike need to readjusting, starting with each consumer.
Leib says that’s why the scaling up of all these smaller solutions is so key. “We’ve already seen a lot of preliminary successes coming from ReFED’s work,” she says. “But into the future, the change needs to be exponential.” In a world where food waste is responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, she says, solutions both big and small need to be expanded as rapidly as possible.
A dream in DC
When the pandemic took root in the U.S. in early 2020, it exposed the vulnerabilities of the American food system—from indefinitely delayed supply chains to forced closures of business that serve or store food, which led to massive losses. ReFED saw an opportunity to create a rapid response fund to get money flowing to organizations already engaged with those communities most affected, ultimately delivering more than $3.5 million to 37 for-profit and nonprofit organizations. The effort helped to collectively keep more than 50 million pounds from being wasted during a critical period of the pandemic. In Washington, D.C, one such organization is Dreaming Out Loud (DOL), which was able to make 70,000 meals and deliver groceries to 1,300 recipients each week through November 2020 thanks to fund resources provided by ReFED.
When Taylor Lewis began at DOL in February of this year, he was tasked with managing the Farm at Kelly Miller, a two-acre urban space atop a grassy hill, tucked behind a middle school in Washington D.C.’s Ward 7. His first mandate: to assess the site’s operations and workflows as the farm had become a beacon of community engagement since his employer launched it in 2018. Amid cordoned off row crops, in-progress digging, irrigation installation, a slew of raised beds, and a compost area, the farm produces fruits, veggies, and herbs to stock DOL’s aggregated farm-share, wholesale markets, and “U-Picks,” where community members of all ages harvest their own goods.
The Kelly Miller property would be Lewis’s first urban farming experience after five years tilling soil, two of them in a rural village in Ghana living with expat friends following a turn in the U.S. Navy. Suddenly Lewis found himself forced to live off the land in ways he hadn’t previously thought about. “For the first time I experienced what it meant to truly reap what you sow,” he said, seated underneath a shady tent one July morning. “You put a single seed in the ground, and it produces pounds of food. I felt fulfilled. I got into a more organic or natural rhythm of doing things and I realized this was something I might be doing for the rest of my life.”
DOL builds community-driven food systems through not only cooperatively supplying healthy foods targeted toward those who are most likely to be exposed to systemic harm, but by creating economically viable opportunities within the food system for those same residents. When Christopher Bradshaw founded the organization in 2008, it was with a clear eye on how food has been politicized in the D.C. Metro area, which is to say, the United States.
To understand the mechanisms of how food as a business operates in the U.S. is to understand that this country has never embraced the responsibility of feeding its people—all of its people. From forcibly removing indigenous peoples off of ancestral land in their care, and owing to an agricultural legacy born out of slavery, food was not intended to ensure a country’s inhabitants receive nourishment or delight in pleasure. Rather, food became incentive to expand territories and acted as fuel to extract maximum results from a disposable labor pool robbed of their identities. The social caste hierarchy rooted in the eras of western expansion and enslavement is apparent in the weaponizing of food that brings us through the 21st century: the eradication of indigenous methods of tending to the land as the government pushed Native people to reservations; sharecropping where Black Americans were trapped in cycles of debt and access to food was restricted often to counter efforts to vote; the abuse of migrant farm laborers, many hailing from Central and South America, and the growing doom of food apartheid, the accurate term for what is often misnamed “food deserts,” where folks who are systemically blocked from living in certain areas find themselves miles away from grocers with healthy, appealing options.
DOL assessed the results of this brutal history and envisioned a path toward food security, including teaching urban agriculture skills to residents made vulnerable by these systemic issues. For that to happen, they would need to shepherd farmers, makers, and sellers into an integrated and transparent process that maximizes their effort and limits unnecessary losses. One way to do this is to aggregate produce from smaller farmers in the region to sell wholesale, distribute through the CSA, and retail at their markets. Or pre-purchasing from such farmers, which provides sustainability, lowers the farmer’s operating costs, and prevents them having to add labor to the retail side of their business. Without DOL, most of those farmers would not be able to produce enough food to make the investment worthwhile, or they would get stymied by frustrations like not having the cash to purchase cold storage to reserve and transport harvest waiting to be sold. Such was the case with a farmer in North Carolina whose story a DOL staffer related, who was harvesting his crops all day, leaving them to sit outside overnight, then driving 90 miles to market. Inevitably his routine was unsustainable, both due to the physical strain but also the loss of quality in his hard-earned harvest.
DOL’s approach is to operate as a food hub that actually has skin in the game and knows the community they’re supporting. For example, they know that many of the heads of household who shop at the market at Kelly Miller are seniors, so they established a convenient drive-thru option. And recognizing that folks who pay with government assistance still want the sovereignty of picking and choosing which carrots or bell peppers go in their box ensures that all DOL staffers and volunteers are trained to know their produce and treat all customers with dignity and respect. It’s these types of efforts, from the herculean physical feats of moving thousands of pounds of food, to the mundane of setting up processes that flow smoothly, that reduce the risk of food waste across every farmer, company, organization, and household that touches DOL’s system. This is the kind of impact ReFED aims to have anywhere people have access to their solutions.
Food sovereignty, food security, environmental protection, racial justice, better health outcomes: so many things could be improved by what ReFED is trying to achieve.
Harvard’s Leib offers a blunter rationale for supporting ReFED’s mission against food waste. “It’s just a stupid problem,” she says. “Nobody is benefitting from this.”
The team behind the Consupedia app is on a mission to create a more transparent and sustainable food industry, armed with a database of 250,000 products. With only a barcode scan, it tells consumers how sustainable and ethical their food choices are.
It’s early July on the vacation island of Gotland, in the Baltic sea between the coasts of Sweden and Latvia. The sun shines on rugged cliffs, white sailboats are packed tight in the marina, and a steady stream of people flock towards the center of its largest city, Visby. But its medieval squares and cobblestoned streets are full of people in suits, not summer dresses.
It’s Almedalsveckan—or Politician’s Week—and Gotland has been transformed into a camp for Sweden’s political elite. Every July, Sweden’s most influential politicians, journalists, businesspeople, and NGOs descend on the island. Officially, they’re here to discuss social issues. Informally, they come to network, to party, and to have lunch meetings that are a lot less casual than they seem.
At a restaurant on Stora Torget, the town’s main square, Roberto Rufo Gonzalez’s eyes scan the menu, searching for something sweet. His lunch companions watch him, showing an unusual amount of interest in what he might be having for dessert. They’ve spent the past hour discussing the connection between the food industry and the climate crisis.
Gonzalez finally places his order. “Can I please have the liquorice pipe,” he says—a traditional Swedish candy.
“Are you sure the pipe is vegan?” asks Göran Blomberg, the CEO of ICA-handlernes Forbund, the trade association of Sweden’s biggest grocery retailer. It’s a fair question: earlier, Gonzalez had to ask for the kitchen to prepare a special vegan dish, because there were no vegan options on the menu.
“Of course,” says Gonzalez. He pulls a battered phone out of his white jeans, opens an app, and scans the barcode on the wrapper of the liquorice pipe.
Unlike a lot of liquorice pipes, this one is vegan. Although the text on the wrapper is in Swedish, the pipe was produced in the Czech Republic. The nutrition and ingredient information, in text so small it’s barely readable on the wrapper, is available on the app, too.
The liquorice pipe is rated in four different categories: Climate, Health, Justice, and Water. This pipe scores 38/100 in the climate category—based on criteria such as carbon dioxide emissions and transport involved in the production chain. That’s a below-average score compared to other similar products and packaged food in general, the app informs us. For health (drawing on facts such as ingredients, additives, or the presence of antibiotics in the food chain), the liquorice pipe—perhaps unsurprisingly—scores 33/100, significantly below average for food products in Sweden. The pipe does better on its social justice score—based on markers such as equality, animal welfare, and child labor issues—with 70/100.
Users of the app—named Consupedia—can also read about how the score is determined, which facts the information is based on, and get background information about topics such as greenhouse gas emissions, the use of antibiotics in the food industry, and practice of child labor around the world. The app’s information is drawn from many sources (and acronyms), such as the RISE Food Climate Database, the WHO, FAOStat (the FAO’s data trove), the Gapminder Foundation (a Sweden-based non-profit fighting global misconceptions), the World Wildlife Fund, the European Food Safety Authority, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the Water Footprint Network, Nutri-score, and the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Social Justice Index.
Distilling all this information into an app places the world’s largest database of environmental impact, health, and justice related to food at consumers’ fingertips within seconds of scanning a barcode. The database, which currently holds sustainability information about 250,000 food products on the Swedish market, is accessible via the app. Consupedia is connected to the main databases in countries where products are being registered by manufacturers or distributors. As soon as new products or changes are made in these databases, the same change occurs in Consupedia’s database. As a complement to these databases, Consupedia uses information-gathering bots.
Consumers can walk into almost any grocery store in the country, scan the barcode of almost any product, and see how the product scores—as well as compare them to similar products or other brands.
“That’s a lot of information,” says Blomberg.
But Gonzalez didn’t just pull up the app to prove a point about veganism. The app, and the database on which it’s built, is his life’s work. He’s spent the past six years creating it, with the help of professors from Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Dalarna University. Now the app is ready to be launched but is still in BETA stage. A test version has been available since 2017, and Gonzalez and his growing team are ready to put the wealth of information behind the app to use.
The goal is to create more transparency in the food industry. He doesn’t just want citizens to be better informed about the products they’re consuming, making it easier for them to choose products based on their values rather than just price and packaging—so far the strongest influences on consumer decision-making. He also wants to use the database to nudge stakeholders, such as grocery retailers, restaurants, hospitals, and policymakers, to make more sustainable choices.
Blomberg leaves the lunch table, seemingly impressed with the app, but without making any promises.
“That went well, I thought,” says Johannes Thomhave, Consupedia’s newly hired COO.
“I know,” Gonzalez says, getting up to go to his next meeting. “I’m just tired of things moving so slowly.”
Gonzalez returned to his native Sweden in 2014, after many years in the United States. He grew up in a tiny timber town in northern Sweden, meters from the pine-covered Bothnian coastline and the Söderhamn archipelago. His father, a Spaniard who’d grown up in an orphanage in Grenada and followed Gonzalez’s mother to her homeland, worked as a plumber, his mother as a school teacher. After high school, he followed his brothers to Stockholm and to KTH, Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology. After a few years studying and a gap year spent repairing roads and drinking vermouth in Grenada, he was awarded a grant to move to Los Angeles to study architecture at UCLA. For the next ten years, Roberto lived on and off in the US, working as a model and founding companies with an American friend.
When his father fell seriously ill in 2014, he returned to Sweden and his father moved in with him. Gonzalez wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. He considered creating similar companies to those he’d built in the US—selling floating homes, designing clothes, or perhaps even launching an AutoGyro company. But the world didn’t really need more clothes, helicopters, or houseboats. What it needed, he thought, was a more conscious way of consuming. That’s how he came up with the idea of creating a consumer database guiding people and companies towards more sustainable consumption patterns.
“Whatever I came up with, nothing compared to Consupedia. It was the only project that was a solution to an existential problem,” says Gonzalez.
He started looking for more knowledge about the items he was consuming, whether it was food, clothes or electronics, but it was almost impossible to find. And then he started wondering if people would change their lifestyle and their consumption patterns if they were presented with the information he was looking for, and if they knew how it impacted themselves, the animals, and the planet.
“I went back to my university because my professors there are the smartest people I know, and I asked them whether it would make a difference. And they said yes, that research did point in that direction. I said, great, we know that information would make a difference, but how do we gather all this information? They didn’t know the answer to that, so I was left with that problem to solve,” says Gonzalez.
He registered the domain Consupedia.com at the turn of the year between 2014 and 2015, knowing he wanted to create some kind of database about what we consume, but not knowing how. And he got stuck.
It was April, 2016, two years since Gonzalez had left the US, and one since he’d registered the domain. He’d become better at finding the information he wanted before he made his decisions about what to buy and eat, but he still hadn’t figured out how to store the data or make it available to other consumers and companies.
Then one evening, while he was watching television with his father, a program about unknown people doing remarkable things aired. One of them was Sverker Johansson. He wasn’t interviewed because of his position—he’s part of the leadership of Dalarna University—but because in 2014, it had been revealed that he’d written 8.5% of everything ever published on Wikipedia.
“He’d figured out how to teach this bot how to gather huge amounts of information, package it, and automatically write an article that’s published on Wikipedia. On a good day, he said, he publishes 10,000 articles. I got up from the couch. Straight away, I saw that we could use this system to gather and package the information for Consupedia,” says Gonzalez.
He decided to convince Sverker Johansson to help out with Consupedia. He drove south in his 1971 Buick Riviera Boattail—powered by ethanol—bringing his beloved parrot Åke. When he arrived in Dalarna, he found out that Sverker Johansson was as passionate about parrots as he was about Wikipedia. Gonzalez asked him what he was currently writing about on Wikipedia, and Sverker replied that he was building a database that would gather information and write articles about every single beetle in the world.
“He also told me that the reason he’s doing this for free is that he believes in democracy and every person’s equal right to free information. That’s why Wikipedia is the only platform he uses, and why he spends a lot of time translating stories originally written in Swedish or English to minority languages,” Gonzalez explains.
“Don’t you think we could use this to gather information about something that would have more impact on society than beetles—for example on how our consumption impacts the world?,” Gonzalez asked him. Sverker Johansson was quiet for a moment. Then he nodded. “Yes, I think so. Let’s do it.”
Gonzalez had the consortium he’d wanted. Sverker Johansson and his team at Dalarna University would help with the database, and professors at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology would help out with their knowledge of fact-gathering and behavioral science. Gonzalez drove back to Stockholm, typed out a research proposal, and was awarded $400,000 from Vinnova, the Swedish government’s innovation department. With Gonzalez as head of research, he and his team got to work.
They had no idea it would take them six years to build the database.
Early on, Gonzalez realized he’d have to work with the grocery retailers rather than against them. His goal isn’t only to inform people about their behavior, but to help them change it. For that to happen, consumers need to be informed about their past behavior, and that requires the cooperation of the grocery retailers who store the information Consupedia wants to use.
These days Consupedia does work with grocery retailers, but the grocery retail business hasn’t always been very friendly to Consupedia.
In 2020, Consupedia was presented with a potential lawsuit. Consupedia had agreed with the Swedish grocery retailers association that the database could access their information in a signed contract. But suddenly the grocery retailers wanted to change the contract and make it illegal for Consupedia to publish the information, arguing that it would discredit some products if they received a low rating in the database. Gonzalez feared for Consupedia’s future. If he signed the new contract, it’d be the end of Consupedia; he’d still have the database, but he wouldn’t be able to use the information it held.
A journalist from Dagens Nyheter, a leading Swedish newspaper, interviewed Consupedia about the conflict, but the story was never published. But in December 2020, Greta Thunberg was asked to serve as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief for one day. Gonzalez bought the paper out of curiosity. To his surprise, there was a huge photo of his face on one of the first few pages.
“The food industry wants to stop warnings about climate-hazardous products,” the headline read, and the article described the climate startup Consupedia’s battle against the powerful Swedish grocery retailers. The conflict died down, the threat of a lawsuit disappeared. Consupedia could continue their work, for now.
As a longtime vegan, Gonzalez might have been a frontrunner when it comes to aligning values with consumption, but he isn’t alone. During the years he worked on building the database, the demand for the knowledge it offers grew. According to a report by the consultancy company Accenture and presented at Almedalsveckan, 57% of people worldwide want to make their shopping habits more sustainable. Eighty-five percent of Nordic grocery consumers want to be more supported in their shopping to make more sustainable choices, and 70% of consumers would swap to a more sustainable retailer if they were presented with the right information.
Despite the rising awareness and the interest in living in a more climate-friendly way, most people struggle to make changes. According to research from Kantar, a data analytics company, 92% of people say they want to live a sustainable life, but the vast majority aren’t actually doing anything to change their lifestyle—only 16% do.
The failure to live according to one’s values has been labeled the intention-action or the ambition-action gap, and across the world people are now trying to understand how the gap can be closed or diminished. Many professors studying the gap turn to behavioral scientists, such as Daniel Kahnemann and Richard Thaler, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 and 2017 respectively for their work on behavioral economics. One of the main takeaways from their work is that it needs to be easy for people to change their habits, and they need to believe it will make a difference.
“People need to feel agency, and they want to understand what their personal role and impact is. We want people to feel like they have enough information that they can make a good choice. They need to know that if they do make a different choice, that it does make a difference. When people feel disengaged, they feel disempowered, and we want to avoid that,” says Edwina Hughes, who works with food at the World Resources Institute, a global, non-profit research organization.
But research shows that people need more than knowledge. Choosing differently is not only a question of information, but also of expenses, habits, and social questions.
“Knowledge does play a key role, but it can’t stand alone. Unless they’re hardcore engaged political consumers, the biggest factor in what people consume is habits. People do and buy what they’ve always done and bought, and it takes a lot to change those patterns,” Bente Halkier, who researches political consumerism at the University of Copenhagen, says.
It is possible for people to change their ways, though, but often the change is caused by social relations rather than by values alone, she adds.
“Perhaps your daughter comes home and informs you she’s a vegetarian now, your best friend tells you they’re only buying organic food, or the canteen at your office starts offering more plant-based food. For people to change their habits, and especially for those to stick to those changes, it often takes a social push,” says Bente Halkier.
At Almedalen, Gonzalez is wrapping up his day. Whenever he’s had a meeting with someone, whether it’s the suit-clad men at the top of the grocery retail industry or the PR people of NGOs, they’ve made excuses for their lifestyle: for eating meat, flying back to Stockholm rather than taking the ferry, or driving to their vacation house in Spain.
Whenever they do, both Thomhave, Consupedia’s new COO, and Gonzalez try to reassure them: “Consupedia is not about making people live according to Roberto’s values, to become vegan or only drink oat milk,” says Thomhave, who joined Consupedia earlier this year to help with the commercialization of the database.
“The goal of Consupedia is to give people the information they need to start living more in line with their own values, whatever they are. Maybe they care mostly about the climate, maybe they want to boycott products from Israel, maybe they only care about health. How people want to use the information is up to them. We just want them to have the information,” adds Thomhave.
Gonzalez has been at Almedalsveckan every year since he launched Consupedia. He spent the morning debating how to make grocery retail more sustainable. He argued that there should be more legislation, but first of all more information, so that consumers can start making more sustainable choices for themselves until the grocery retailers are ready to do it for them.
“We can leave the responsibility to sustainably transform the food system in the hands of the retailers, the day the Dalai Lama is the CEO of ICA,” says Gonzalez, the ICA being Sweden’s biggest grocery retailer. It’s the third time in a day he’s made the same joke, and the sixth year he’s traveled to Gotland with the same message.
“My message has remained the same, but the group of people I get to talk to has changed. It used to be hard for me to get a meeting with anyone, but now I’m invited to debates with the most powerful lobbying group and having lunch with the biggest grocery retailer in the country,” says Gonzalez.
Still, it’s hard for him to hide his impatience and exhaustion when they repeat their message, arguing that things take time, and that it will take them a while to start taking steps Roberto—and many consumers—are asking them to.
“We don’t need more time, we need more action. We have the information we need. It’s time to start acting on it.”