Challenging their way to innovative food waste solutions

Competitions are becoming a popular way to encourage new technologies in agriculture and food

An Ontario company aims to reduce food waste by limiting foreign objects found in meat at the processing plant using its optical system.

Challenge competitions are increasingly becoming popular ways to boost innovation. The idea is to harness the ideas and creativity of a broad audience of innovators, researchers and entrepreneurs in hopes of coming up with out-of-the-box solutions to tough problems. 

Why it matters: A “challenge” approach to research and innovation brings new perspectives and ideas to problem-solving beyond the more traditional research approaches that could result in unique solutions not otherwise considered.

The federal government has embraced the idea of challenge competitions, with two large programs currently underway. The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and NASA, together with national food and agri-tech accelerator Bioenterprise and its Quebec counterpart ZoneAgTech, are spearheading a simultaneous call for innovation in Canada and the U.S. called the Deep Space Food Challenge.

Participants must create novel food production technologies or systems using minimal inputs to produce safe, nutritious, and tasty food for long-duration space missions. Space food solutions could also have benefits in urban, rural, remote or harsh environments across Canada. Up to 10 semi-finalists will be announced this fall. 

The government is also supporting a $20 million Food Waste Reduction Challenge under the Food Policy for Canada with funding from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC). 

The food waste problem is a major one worldwide; in Canada alone, it is estimated that about half of Canada’s food supply is wasted every year and that almost $50 billion worth of food waste is preventable. 

The first two streams — focused on business model solutions to prevent or divert food waste anywhere from farm to fork — were launched last fall. Two more, seeking technological solutions to food waste, are to be announced this spring. 

In May, AAFC revealed the 24 semi-finalists that were selected out of 343 entries; each semi-finalist receives $100,000 to pilot their innovations over the next eight months. Based on those results, 12 finalists will move to the final stage, where they’ll receive another $400,000 each and a chance to win one of two grand prizes worth up to $1.5 million. 

Half of the semi-finalists come from Ontario, with the others located in Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta and Nova Scotia. Most entries are focused on food waste reduction efforts beyond the farm gate, but two specifically target on-farm problems. 

Top Grade Ag of Alberta has developed the In-Bin Drying Monitor to take the guesswork out of grain drying. This innovation provides grain growers with the drying rate of their grain in gallons of water per hour, the estimated time needed until grain reaches target moisture content, and average bin moisture content at any time during the grain drying process. 

Vivid Machines Inc., of Toronto, is working on a smart computer vision system that captures plant data and provides fruit and vegetable growers with insights on fruit/vegetable quality, pests, disease, yield predictions and resource management to help them be more sustainable. 

Other smart technologies look at food production beyond the farm. P&P Optica of Waterloo has technology that combines hyperspectral imaging and artificial intelligence to both assess the quality of meat products and quickly and easily detect foreign objects like plastics, rubber or bone. 

Mississauga-based Savormetrics provides real-time quality analysis of fresh food, including shelf-life prediction and optimal harvest time. Winnow Solutions Ltd’s artificial intelligence innovation tracks food waste in restaurants, helping chefs identify where and how food is being wasted and the value of that waste. 

The most common theme among challenge participants, though, is upcycling — turning food that would otherwise be thrown out into desirable new products. Examples include using spent brewers’ grain as mushroom substrate (Blanc de gris, Montreal, Que.); turning the pulp leftover after tofu or soy beverage production into flour, noodles and baked goods (Abokichi Inc., Hamilton, Ont.); and producing frozen vegetables and fruit puree scoops from unharvested produce (The Station Food Company Ltd., Newport Station, N.S.).

Finalists will be selected in 2022, with grand prize winners announced in summer 2023.

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