Fixing food loss with disruptive tech

Most wasted food perishes on the journey between farm and supermarket shelf - even before it has entered the consumer’s consciousness. A new initiative aims to change our food system by inspiring innovation and collaboration.

Packed dried red chillies are ready to be sent for further processing at Sindhanur, Raichur district, Karnataka, India.
Packed dried red chillies are ready to be sent for further processing in India. In South and Southeast Asia around 59 per cent of produce is lost on the way to the dining table. Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The tragedy of food loss is best expressed in numbers: More than one-third of all food is spoiled or damaged before it reaches supermarket shelves.

In South and Southeast Asia, around 59 per cent of produce never makes it to the dining table; and 795 million people do not have regular, reliable access to food. In short, the food supply system is ripe for disruption.

To that end, non-profit sustainability consultancy Forum for the Future and partners unveiled the Global Food Logistics Innovations Map in Singapore last month.

It is a directory listing cutting-edge solutions and services in a single, online resource from which food and logistics companies can pick the most relevant or useful ones to implement in their business processes in order to prevent food loss.

The organisation has identified four areas with the most potential for change – packaging, cold chain, information and communications technology (ICT) and supply chain structure.

The Map will also show the solution’s country of origin, its stage of development, efficacy levels, and how to get in touch with providers. It is being developed with the UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers and US-based ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss. While a number of solutions have been identified, an online version is still in the works.

Speaking at the launch event earlier last month, Tim Fox, chair of food and drink engineering committee of the UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers said: “The map is being developed as key to enabling innovation transfer to occur around the world that will catalyse change within food supply chains.”

It is the first project under the Disrupting Food Logistics initiative, which was launched on the same day by Forum for the Future and challenges businesses to design sustainable, zero-waste supply chains. While the initiative has global relevance, it is based out of Singapore and will have a focus on Asia-Pacific for a start.

The project is being led by Gwyneth Fries, senior sustainability advisor with Forum for the Future, who explained that the aim is to take “invisible food losses and make them visible”.

“When we talk about wasting food, people tend to think about consumer food waste in their homes and at the retail level. They don’t realise that, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, the majority of wastage happens along the supply chain,” said Fries, who comes from a background in food supply logistics.

Food loss, also known as post harvest loss, is the name given to produce that is intended for human consumption but loses its nutritional value along the supply chain due to factors such as poor infrastructure or mishandling.

For instance, seafood can spoil quickly and poor harvesting, handling and the lack of cold storage can lead to it becoming unfit for consumption even before it reaches the supermarket.

While food loss happens at every point of the food supply chain, data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has found that 40 per cent of food loss takes place at the post-harvest and processing stages of the food supply chain in developing countries where infrastructure is not as extensive or technology is lacking. 

On the other hand, industrialised countries throw out more than 40 per cent of food at the retail and consumer level although they may still be fit for human consumption due to over stocking, over preparation or simply being kept until it is no longer fit to eat. This is what is known as food waste, while food wastage is the umbrella term for both food loss and food waste.

In developing Disrupting Food Logistics, which is being run in partnership with the UK Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Fries said she initially spoke to companies offering to help diagnose problem areas within their supply chains but quickly realised this was not an approach that interested them. 

She explained: “What we found is that businesses know food loss is an issue, but where there is a real opportunity to inspire business is through collaboration and innovation. So we decided to focus less on the challenge and more on the solutions and the opportunities.”

A roundtable convening stakeholders and businesses including non-food companies such as logistics providers was also held on the day of the launch to discuss issues surrounding food loss, with an outcome report summarising the findings to be published in 2017.   

If food loss was a country

Food loss is a major problem because, as the term suggests, the economic value of the produce perishes. According to the FAO, the market value of food lost or wasted in 2012 is comparable to the GDPs of countries such as Indonesia and the Netherlands at a total of US$936 billion. The FAO is the main source of data for food loss within supply chains.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have also identified food loss as a goal and set a target to cut per capita global food waste in half. 

Food loss also contributes significantly to climate change. The FAO has also estimated that food wastage contributes 3.6 gigatonnes of CO2 per year. Putting that into context, food wastage would be the third biggest greenhouse gas producer in the world after the United States and China if it was a country.

By mending the holes in the food supply chain to ensure less food is lost, the world could also be feeding more of the 795 million hungry people in the world.

FAO data has shown that Asia records the highest percentage of food loss, especially for fruits and vegetables. Ironically, Asia is also home to the two-thirds of all people exposed to hunger.

This can also be explained by the fact that the region is a major food producer and exporter, especially for fruits and vegetables. “A lot of loss is happening post-harvest as supply chains are disorganised and there is a lack of infrastructure and services for proper coordination in developing countries, especially Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia - the agro-export countries,” said Fries.

The importance of catching all the produce that slips through our supply chain is more pressing given that experts estimate that the global population is to reach 9 billion by 2050.

In order to keep everyone fed, total agricultural production will need to increase by more than 50 per cent, according to the World Bank.

But there have been encouraging signs that the world is getting its act together to tackle food waste in 2016.

For example, anti-food waste laws came into force in France and Italy, the Rockefeller Foundation rolled out the YieldWise Initiative to reduce post-harvest losses for African farmers, and the World Resources Institute spearheaded the launch of the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard to help measure and control food wastage.

In Singapore, Fries said the overarching ambition of the Disrupting Food Logistics initiative remains to reduce the amount of food loss that occurs within the food supply system, although she declined to give a target for loss reduction.

In the meantime, the goal is for businesses to begin launching collaborative pilot tests in reducing food loss, and to raise awareness among the general public about food loss and how it differs from food waste.

“If you’re not a huge company like Olam or Nestle, you need to work with supply chain partners to innovate,” explained Fries, who noted that smaller food business owners need the guarantee that they will have a buyer and eventually be able to make a return on investment.

Through such collaboration, innovation becomes feasible for those operating within smaller supply chains, she said.

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