Agriculture and Climate Change: A Vicious Cycle
The agricultural industry is one of the largest consumers of earth’s limited resources. In the United States, the production, transportation, and distribution of food utilizes 10% of the country’s energy, consumes 80% of freshwater, and uses 50% of land. However, due to significant wastage at every step from farm to table, much of the resource consumption is fruitless—approximately 30-40% of the food supply in the U.S. is wasted, highlighting gaping inefficiencies in the agricultural supply chain.
These inefficiencies will be exacerbated as a result of continued trends requiring increased food production: climate change, spurring less predictable and lower yielding harvests due to droughts and floods; population growth, resulting in more mouths to feed; and rising income levels, which is likely to lead to an increase in consumption of meat, a product particularly taxing on resources.
Additionally, there is a vicious cycle by which food waste—the largest single category in landfills, comprising nearly 22% of municipal solid waste—contributes significantly to methane emissions, and consequently climate change, as it decomposes and the nutrients are unable to return to the soil.
Meal-kit delivery service, Blue Apron, claims that its business, which provides customers a prepackaged box with a recipe and just enough food to cook it, helps to eliminate food waste. With consumers increasingly aware of the damaging environmental effects of agriculture and a heightened focused on sustainability, it is critical that Blue Apron continue to innovate to prove its benefits relative to traditional grocery stores and to meal-kit competitors.
Blue Apron’s Existing Sustainability Measures
One of the key selling points of meal-kit delivery services is the assertion that they help to minimize food waste in the home. By providing exactly the right portions of ingredients to complete recipes, consumers do not accidentally over purchase at the grocery store nor do they end up throwing away produce that rots before they have the chance to eat it.
As a competitive advantage on the operations side, Blue Apron has implemented a number of specific processes that help to limit waste. First, in order to more precisely and effectively purchase its own ingredient supply, Blue Apron tries to forecast customer demand and buy only what is needed to fulfill it. Additionally, the company closely tracks its produce supply chain, projecting availability on its partner farms up to three years in the future. Undertaking these measures in close coordination with farmers allows for more reliable meal planning for Blue Apron and, subsequently, helpful crop planning for partner farmers. Blue Apron’s Director of Communication, Nisha Devarajan, has explained: “Providing a source of predictable demand for these farms allows them to net a better yield and produce what’s most effective on their land.”
Blue Apron has described additional initiatives it will undertake in the short- to medium-term in order to further cut food waste, including continuing to improve demand forecasting tools and using innovative automated equipment to more efficiently and less wastefully prepare ingredients for shipment.
What else can Blue Apron do?
An independent report commissioned by Blue Apron estimates that the meal-kit delivery startup reduces food waste in landfills by 62% relative to grocery stores. However, there is more that Blue Apron can do.
Today, approximately 20% of produce never leaves the farm because it is too aesthetically imperfect to be accepted by grocery stores or other retailers. Blue Apron could launch an initiative to include these misfit fruits and vegetables in their meal kits. In this way, the company would not only contribute to limiting food waste within homes but could make a significant impact on waste at farms as well. Consumers could opt-in to the program and potentially get a discount on the meal kit for doing so, as Blue Apron is likely to be able to purchase imperfect produce at a discount from farmers.
Blue Apron could also consider tailoring menus regionally depending on what is available for purchase at supplier farms near each of the company’s distribution centers. This will help ensure more secure demand for farmers, further reducing waste on farms and building stronger relationships with farmers, which may lead to cost savings at Blue Apron.
Despite its progress in fighting food waste, Blue Apron’s supply chain wears on the environment in other ways. How harmful is the transportation/refrigeration of ingredients, packaging of meals, and distribution of kits? Can the company do more to support recycling/upcycling, particularly of non-recyclable materials, such as freezer packs?
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 Gunders, Dana. 2012. “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up To 40 Percent Of Its Food From Farm To Fork To Landfill”. National Resource Defense Council: Issue Paper, no. 12-06B. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf.
 “U.S. Food Waste Challenge”. 2016. United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm.
 “Sustainable Management of Food Basics”. 2015. United States Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/sustainable-management-food-basics.
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 Peters, Adele. “Cooking With a Meal Kit May Waste 62% Less Food Than Grocery Store Ingredients”. September 2016. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/3063772/cooking-with-a-meal-kit-may-waste-62-less-food-than-grocery-store-ingredients.
 Quittner, Ella. “Imperfect Produce: A Rescue Mission to Combat Food Waste”. August 2017. Gardenista. https://www.gardenista.com/posts/imperfect-produce-a-rescue-mission-to-combat-food-waste/.