"My garbage disposal eats better than most of the world," one Redditor wrote in a particularly poignant comment on r/Shower Thoughts, and he's probably right. According to the National Resources Defense Council, up to 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted, adding up to around $162 billion in uneaten food every year. But WISErg—a Redmond, Washington-based biotech startup—is doing its best to change that by turning wasted food into a valuable resource that can benefit grocery stores, farmers, and even the average Whole Foods shopper.
The process starts in the grocery stores themselves, where WISErg's Harvester machine turns food scraps—everything from potato peels to bruised bananas to steaks past their sell-by dates—into a nutrient-rich liquid. That material is then transported to a WISErg facility, where it is converted into an organic fertilizer that is delivered to a network of farmers stretching from British Columbia to Mexico. WISErg says that its "downright delicious" fertilizer improves soil health, which results in higher yields and more flavorful fruits and vegetables.
Those are impressive results for WISErg, especially considering the company's co-founders—two former Microsoft employees—were more familiar with the software industry than they were with soil when they founded the company in 2009. We recently spoke with WISErg CEO Larry LeSueur, who told us about the company's challenges, successes, and what he hopes for the future.
MUNCHIES: What prompted you to make the move from technology to biology? Larry LeSueur: I'd worked on the software side for the grocery industry and I knew they operated on a very, very small margin. I started understanding the quantity of food waste, and the thing that stuck out to me was that they're living on 2-3 percent [margin] going out the front of their store, so how could they have 15-20 percent in wasted produce going out the back? That problem gave us an opportunity to have a meaningful solution.
What was that transition like? Originally, we thought we were going to create a software solution that would give the grocer a better idea of why they're throwing something away, they'd make all of these behavioral changes, and we'd all be happy. But in order to get that data, we had to handle the physical product. And by handling it and seeing the quality of it, that's when we asked, "So why are we throwing it away?" We had the premise that we could create something out of [that food waste], and then it took another year and a half of research to figure out how we could do it and how we could do it at a commercial scale.
And that led to the development of the Harvester? Yes, the Harvester is step one. The processing facility is step two, where we bring the product back, refine it, and make the specific formula. A big focus of what we're creating is a fertilizer, which is a total misnomer in this industry. What we're really focused on is creating a nutrient solution that's going into the soil and helping the soil microbes. And step three is getting that solution out onto grower's fields and working with them as they use the product.
Three steps? That makes it sound so simple. I sometimes laugh and think software's a heck of a lot easier.
Have you found that you're focusing your efforts mostly on the grocers, the farmers, or the end consumer? It's all of them. We work with the grocers in order to secure the food waste in an economical way that's attractive for them and, at the same time, we work with large-scale growers in order to bring a product that's meaningful and works for their particular crop, their application method, and their soil. We are seeing huge responses in blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, lettuce products, potatoes, general tubers…
How do you measure your results? The bottom line is that farmers are very hard-working. They take on a burden for our society to produce the food that we're going to eat and they make very little margin. They have good years and they have bad years; they have inconsistencies with being able to control that. The way I would measure our success is our ability to help the growers make better margins more predictably, more consistently, year after year.
And that has happened so far? Absolutely. We are seeing probably 20 percent-plus increases in crop yields. For growers, that results in a 20-30 percent increase in their margin, and that happens for one of two reasons: we produce more, but we also produce a better quality product.
Have you faced any setbacks as you've developed this? I would say it's less about setbacks and more about industry challenges. The average grower is in their 50s. They've been dependent on a conventional fertilizer regime for the last several decades, so we're in a knowledge transition. There's a lot of education.
Do you think that we've hit peak food waste? There's a phrase that I learned early in my career which is, "If you can't measure something, you can't change the behavior behind it." The awareness around food waste is a good step, but the next question we have to ask is, "why?" Once we have the why, we can start taking meaningful steps to reduce it. I suspect that we can decrease [the percentage of food waste] by 20-30 percent because most of the waste happens as a result of handling practices, transport, and logistics. But food waste is still going to exist, even if we decrease the quantity on a per-person basis.
Knowing that a percentage of food is always going to go to waste, when will you be satisfied? I will feel that we've made our mark if I know that WISErg has had an impact on how people think about food waste—if they transition into thinking about it as a food resource—and that we are part of that solution. Secondly, is if we have a measurable impact on helping growers become more successful in producing nutrient-rich food, which in turn feeds that next generation. The cool thing is that it's possible. We know how to do it; now it's partnering and scaling to make that happen.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.