Thanks to artificial intelligence, food waste can be reduced by restaurants. An investment fund is helping farms restore degraded land with a great climate impact

There are many ways we can change the way we grow or prepare food to help the climate. Sometimes these changes require high-tech artificial intelligence technology in swanky restaurant kitchens. Other times they simply involve a new way to organise small coffee farms in the Amazon forests.

A fine example of the technological route to fighting climate change is a device called Winnow Vision, which uses machine vision and artificial intelligence to identify food being throw away and then generate a report that restaurants can use to reduce waste.

The Winnow system takes photos of food as restaurants throw it away. Using these images, the machine trains itself to recognise what’s being tossed out more accurately than humans.

Commercial kitchens are wasting 20% to 25% of their volume,” says Kevin Duffy, Winnow’s co-founder. “Winnow's artificial intelligence makes food-waste tracking so easy and accurate that it should become the standard in every commercial kitchen.”

Kitchens aren’t the only places where food goes to waste. An estimated one-third of the world’s food is wasted. According to the United Nations, the resources used to produce this wasted food is equal to 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.

Winnow’s first food-waste product was a manual tool called Waste Monitor. Daily reports by this tool can help kitchens make smarter decisions, saving up to half the food that might otherwise be wasted. The company, whose research offices are located in Cluj, Romania, says its second-generation product, Winnow Vision, integrates machine vision and artificial intelligence to save even more waste. Over time, Winnow Vision becomes smarter and eventually reaches full automation, giving kitchens pinpoint accuracy without any input from the kitchen staff.

“This is machine-learning technology,” says Maria Lundqvist, an economist at the European Investment Bank. “The more you use it, the more effective it becomes.”

To increase its staff and further develop its technology, Winnow signed a €7.5 million loan last year with the European Investment Bank.

Investing in land protection

Food can have a big climate impact. So can the way we treat the land on which it is produced.

Large swathes of the Amazon forest have been destroyed and cleared for farm use. Peru is trying to reverse this trend through education and investment. The goal is to restore 3.2 million hectares of degraded land in the country.

About 30% of land is degraded worldwide, according to the United Nations, and about 12 million hectares of productive land – an area roughly the size of Greece – is degraded every year. This is happening because humans are exploiting land and not investing enough in its protection.

One example of the positive changes in Peru is in Uctubamba, a northern province where hundreds of coffee farmers joined together to obtain loans and specialised advice that will help them restore degraded land and make it more productive. One cooperative in the area learned new ways to plant trees to shade the coffee plants, thus regulating the temperature of the plantations and increasing yields, while helping sustain the land.

The farmers are receiving assistance from Ecotierra, a Canadian company that designs agroforestry projects around the world. The European Investment Bank helped Ecotierra by investing in the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, an investment vehicle created by the United Nations and run by the French investment manager Mirova to save damaged land around the world.

The European Investment Bank agreed in 2019 to invest up to $45 million in the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, while the Luxembourg government pledged €5 million. The fund has raised half of its $300 million goal.

Martin Berg, head of environmental and climate finance policy at the European Investment Bank, says the investments from the EIB and Luxembourg played a big role in making the fund a success and attracting private investors. “It made this fund much more attractive to risk-averse investors,” he says.