April 19, 2021

A World Without Food Waste: Emily Ma

Emily Ma, Head of Food for Good at Google, shares what it will take to create a world without hunger or waste.

For Earth Day 2021, we're highlighting leaders who believe in a world with zero hunger and zero waste and currently serve as advisory committee members for The Kroger Co. Zero Hunger | Zero Waste Foundation Innovation Fund. In collaboration with Village Capital, the Innovation Fund has developed an investment-readiness program for startups working to prevent, recover and recycle food waste in the U.S. Learn more about the program here.

What do you think it will take to create a world without hunger or food waste? 

In 2013, Google’s founder Larry Page responded publicly to this question at Google I/O, our conference for developers. After a moment of introspection, he said “People are starving in the world not because we don’t have enough food. It’s because we’re not yet organized to solve that problem”. Without having studied the topic, Larry had intuited that the problem was not in food production (there’s a surplus) but in food distribution, and it will take all of us, inclusively, getting organized to create a world without hunger and food waste.

The internet unlocked tremendous opportunities for commerce - for sole proprietors to Fortune 500 companies to sell their goods to a much broader set of customers. To reduce and eliminate hunger and food waste, we can leverage the same technologies to share information either privately or publicly. Yet, the challenge is not in the technology so much as it is in the incentives. We’re not yet incentivized collectively to tackle hunger and food waste. Our economic systems don’t fully reward individuals and companies for addressing these issues. How might information shed light on those who dare to make a difference? 

Many companies are already leading the way, whether it’s Kroger in the United States or Tesco in the United Kingdom, bravely sharing their data, however imperfect, and bravely reporting on progress, however incremental. When we add up all the imperfect data and the millions of incremental steps, that’s transformation. My hope is that all companies and organizations will find the courage to do the same, and see the shared value in creating a world without hunger and waste, together. It’s not a competition. We can do this and we must do it, together, and transcend the economic and cultural structures that may be holding us back. 

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Why is this work important to you, personally and professionally?

Many of us are here today, living our lives and doing the work we love because somewhere someone along the way had the courage to do something that put those who were not born yet in a better place. My father was born malnourished in a small village in Southern China. He did not have access to food, not because of production issues, but for political reasons. He survived his infancy because a brave neighbor made a personal decision to hide away pork inside balls of rice for my grandmother to feed him. 

Seventy years later, I am here today because of her actions and it is my job, personally and professionally, to pay it forward to the person who will be reflecting on this question seventy years from now. We now owe it to those who are not born yet to do better. They will need a strong economy, but also a thriving environment and flourishing society to support that economy. Summing it up, we do this for all the mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers who dared to do the things to give us the chances we have today. 

Are you working on any relevant projects that we should highlight?

Every time someone asks me about food waste, I point them to ReFED. This tiny organization has made, in its early years, great strides in bringing together fifty public and private data sets to look at why food waste is occurring in the United States and the dozens of well researched solutions that already exist. Organizations can download their analyses and data to run their own scenarios for their operations. I’m honored to be on the ReFED Board of Directors to help make it even easier for those who are aware and interested in reducing food waste to evaluate and implement all the solutions already available to us.

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