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Food waste innovators take aim at West Coast farms

B.C. companies are custom-manufacturing equipment to reduce agricultural food waste.
Burnaby-based Trendi commissioned a custom-built mobile lab to process potential food waste at farms rather than transport produce to Trendi facilities.

Rodolfo Piedrabuena would like to the think the opportunity to tackle the global food waste problem is ripe for the picking. 

An estimated 17 per cent of global food production goes to waste between harvest and retail, according to the United Nations.  But what if one could begin to stem the tide right at harvest? 

“This is a massive challenge,” said Piedrabuena, chief technology officer of TrendiTech Inc. (Trendi). 

The Burnaby-based company specializes in upcycling potential food waste at farms and converting unsightly fruits or vegetables into freeze-dried, edible and packaged products that come in powdered or flake form. The company’s process is designed to ensure that the next sip from a smoothie does not need to be derived from fresh fruit to retain all the nutrients associated from the produce. 

Other B.C. companies are also taking a similar approach to battling food waste by first targeting farms. 

Earlier this year, Trendi embarked on a new initiative, commissioning the construction of a prototype mobile lab that can be dropped off at farms to clean, process and freeze-dry fruits and vegetables that might otherwise go to waste. There, the mobile lab can process the produce on site rather than shipping those food products to Trendi’s own facilities — a trip that would require both additional time and the use of refrigeration to keep the produce safe for human consumption. 

“We want to get to a point where we don’t have any waste,” said Piedrabuena, whose company is preparing to launch in Ecuador. 

The mobile lab was built locally by Surrey’s Apollo Custom Manufacturing Ltd. 

Apollo is best known for building custom food trucks and ghost kitchens. It had never before dipped its toes into mobile food labs prior to partnering with Trendi to convert a 12-metre-long shipping container into a mini-facility that would come under the scrutiny of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 

“There was some very expensive equipment going in there — very technical equipment that we’re not used to. We’re used to charboilers, and fryers and grills,” said Rob Mallory, Apollo’s sales and marketing manager. 

Ultimately, the company spent around 2,500 hours assembling the mobile lab, installing about $40,000 in raw materials and $15,000 in electrical components. 

Further east, Langley-based ReFeed Canada Farm Ltd. has also had to rely on custom-manufactured equipment to tackle food waste at farms. 

The result was the spring launch of a vertical worm farm: A chrome, three-level setup featuring a pair of 14-metre-long beds on each level, where more than 450 kilograms of worms and feed reside in each bed. 

This came about after ReFeed founder Stuart Lilley began envisioning a system where excess food at farms went back to people first, then to livestock and that whatever remained could still avoid the fate of a landfill or composting facility. 

Produce warehouses, distributors and importers pay ReFeed to collect byproduct that would otherwise be used for composting. ReFeed workers take in excess produce and sort what’s fit for human consumption and what’s best for livestock feed. The produce and livestock feed are delivered to organizations like food banks and dairy farms, respectively, which in turn pay ReFeed for that service. 

“It reduces the cost and the requirements for food banks and other charities from having to do it themselves, which would have been their own costs, and reduces their labour,” Lilley said. 

Last year, ReFeed recovered 2.7 million kilograms of produce this way, while what remains is going into ReFeed’s vertical worm farm. 

The worms live in their beds and consume a “special blend of inputs” that the company processes into their feedstock, which the worms in turn poop out, according to Lilley. 

About six million worms can live within ReFeed’s three-level vertical worm farm when it’s at full capacity, eating and pooping out about 1,000 kilograms of manure — or worm castings — a day (the modular farm system can support a fourth level, if needed). 

The castings are then used for products such as organic fertilizer that consumers might use for home gardening. 

“We also create products for agricultural purposes to support farmers converting to regenerative agriculture over conventional,” Lilley said, referring to the practice of focusing on soil health rather than crop yield. 

For example, farmers can pay ReFeed to take their manure cakes, centrifuge the manure and then use that product as feed for the worms. The products can also be used for regenerative farming practices. 

“So whether it’s for the consumer or products for the farm, everything is coming from a source of a byproduct that’s local,” Lilley said.  

The worms are sourced from both Canadian suppliers as well grown on site by ReFeed. 

“Our growth strategy,” Lilley said, “is to have these facilities across the country so that you’re creating localized manufacturing facilities of soil microbiology and soil amendments that are going to be needed as we focus on localized food security.”

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