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Tackling food waste and food loss: a supply chain reaction

Reducing food waste and food loss must form part of strategies to achieve a more sustainable, fairer food system, where large-scale action is needed across the entire supply chain. Here we highlight the key solutions for reducing food waste and food loss by increasing collaboration.

22 Sep 2023
6 min reading time

It's always a shock to recall that approximately 40% of food is going to waste (1). Food waste and food loss are multifaceted problems that span the entire agrifood supply chain, with serious environmental, economic, and social implications. While individual consumer behaviour plays a role, we must look beyond household actions and focus on the stages of the supply chain where food waste and loss occur at scale. Promising solutions are emerging, but the problems can be more comprehensively tackled through collaboration and knowledge sharing across the entire supply chain.

The consequences of food waste and loss are far-reaching. They can exacerbate food insecurity, a paradoxical issue in a world with surplus food, with nutritious food going to waste. This wasted food could instead provide people with access to affordable, healthy diets and alleviate many of the world’s diet-related health challenges. According to the FAO, the food that is lost and wasted could feed 1.26 billion hungry people every year (2). The economic toll of this food waste is also huge, with lost revenue for farmers and increased costs for consumers (3). In fact, it is estimated that the economic cost of food waste and loss amounts to approximately US$1 trillion every year (4).

Food waste and loss also contribute to significant environmental issues, with the resources used to produce, transport, and process wasted food, along with the methane emissions from decomposing organic matter, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and, ultimately, climate change. Food waste and loss account for a staggering 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions (2).

Reducing food waste and food loss: linking actors across the supply chain

Food waste and loss occur at various points in the supply chain, from production and harvest to distribution and consumption. A large proportion of unintentional food loss occurs during the production and post-harvest phases due to factors such as market conditions, poor infrastructure, a lack of policy, poor agricultural practices, pests, disease, natural disasters, and weather events (1). In some countries, however, the spotlight often falls on retailers and consumers who discard imperfect produce due to best before dates, confusing labelling and packaging, high aesthetic standards, and a lack of clarity on food safety precautions. So, who is truly responsible for taking action?

Producer-level food loss: challenges and solutions

It is estimated that 8.3% of all produced food is wasted at or around harvest and 7% during farm-stage post-harvest activities (1). Reasons for this range from produce being left in fields due to surpluses, cancellations, or imperfect aesthetics, to poor treatment of animals during collection and transportation to slaughterhouses (1). These connected challenges all contribute to a system that is not designed to protect and preserve produce – connected solutions are needed.

At the producer level, various factors contribute to food loss, such as inadequate storage, poor transportation infrastructure, and lack of access to markets. Farmers often lack information about optimal harvesting and storage techniques, leading to spoilage before reaching consumers (1). Additionally, strict cosmetic standards set by retailers often results in the rejection of "imperfect" produce, leading to further losses at the producer level (5).

On top of measures such as reducing cosmetic standards through education (5), one of the most promising solutions for producers involves increasing local knowledge and data sharing across the supply chain. Farmers can benefit from real-time market demand data and post-harvest handling techniques shared by retailers and processors. Scaling collaborative efforts in this way could reduce waste by better aligning production with demand.

Platforms such as Agri Marketplace are already facilitating the matching of supply and demand over specific agrifood markets in a bid to make the process of buying and selling agrifood products easier, efficient and more transparent, reducing waste in the process. Imperfect produce that doesn't meet retailers' cosmetic standards can also find a market in value-added products where processors can turn "ugly" fruits and vegetables and side-streams into other products such as fuel, ingredients, juices or frozen products, minimising waste while creating new revenue streams. MaGie Creations, for example, upcycles beer grains – that would otherwise be discarded – into highly nutritious ingredients such as fibre and protein-rich flour.

Retail-level food waste: challenges and solutions

Retailers face a different set of challenges. They must balance the desire for fully stocked shelves with minimising waste. Managing perishable items' shelf life, predicting consumer demand accurately, and avoiding overstocking is a complex puzzle. Often, retailers resort to discarding food close to its expiration date as the solution, contributing significantly to waste. It is estimated that around 931 million is wasted every year, and food service and retail are responsible for 26% and 13% of this total, respectively (6).

Growing and complex global food supply chains also increase the vulnerability to food fraud, with challenges to establish the integrity and authenticity of products (7). However, emerging technologies offer transformative solutions. For instance, blockchain can provide end-to-end traceability, from farm to table. This means that everyone in the chain – ending with consumers – can be confident in the origin of the food, including details about the farm, production processes, and transportation. Internet of Things (IoT) devices can monitor storage conditions, helping prevent spoilage, and predictive analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) can optimise supply chains, enabling better demand forecasting and reducing waste.

There are also a wide range of opportunities for reducing food waste in the food service sector. As outlined in guidelines by Great Taste Zero Waste, an open platform for HoReCa professionals, food service outlets can introduce small-scale interventions that can result in large-scale impact. These include more efficient planning and food waste measurement, designing smart menus, enabling good storage techniques, and building a zero-waste culture among staff and customers. Technology can also support food service outlets with implementing these ideas, with solutions such as Orbisk's smart camera technology already supporting kitchens to manage waste by weighing discarded food and providing insights on what type of food is wasted most.

Food waste during transit can also be reduced through shorter supply chains (5). With an increasing percentage of the global population living in cities, urban farming can bring part of our food production closer to where the bulk of food is consumed. Vertical farming solutions, for example, can help to enable localised production and encourage consumers to purchase and consume local food, regardless of where they live.

Urban Crop Solutions develops and builds indoor farms like this with the aim to not only reduce opportunities for food waste during transit, but also to optimise the use of resources such as light, water and energy in controlled and sterile environments. Food banks and surplus food redistribution programmes can also connect retailers with charities that can channel excess food to people in need. Apps and platforms can match surplus food with recipients, reducing waste and addressing food insecurity simultaneously.

Get Wasted, a digital solution for food producers and food processors, is an example of this in action in Belgium. The platform is a circular online B2B marketplace for surplus food and aims to match food producers with their ideal counterpart in the food system, whether that be restaurants, other producers or even kitchens in hospitals and schools. By attaching a price to food surpluses through Get Wasted, the platform provides an incentive for producers and food suppliers to actively revalue their rejected products. This aims to generate new revenue for them, but also replace the cost of processing surpluses into biofuel or letting perfectly edible produce go to waste.

On top of already having kitchens, schools and restaurants signed up to purchase surplus food, Get Wasted is also involved in the Antwerp Food Strategy and the Circular Foodchain Taskforce, where the project team aim to stimulate the debate around social distribution platforms and logistical needs in sustainable food initiatives. Get Wasted hopes to continue to support other cities, projects and governments and offer inspiration to other circular food platforms.

The time for wasting is over

Tackling food waste and loss along the supply chain is a collective effort that involves producers, retailers, consumers, and policymakers. By shifting our focus from individual consumer actions to systemic challenges, we can implement impactful solutions that address this pressing issue. Collaboration, data sharing, technological innovation, and a rethinking of cosmetic standards can pave the way for a more sustainable and efficient food system. As we work together, we have the power to create a chain reaction of positive change that not only reduces food waste but also contributes to food security, environmental sustainability, and a healthier planet for future generations.

References

  1. WWF: Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Loss and Waste on Farms
  2. FAO: Tackling food loss and waste: A triple win opportunity
  3. UN: Reducing food loss and waste: Taking action to transform food systems
  4. FAO: Food Waste Footprint: Full cost-accounting
  5. Queen Mary University of London: How ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables could tackle food waste and solve supermarket supply shortages
  6. UNEP: UNEP Food Waste Index Report 2021
  7. EIT Food: Reducing Risk for a Fair & Resilient Food System Insight Report
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