Waste not

Waste not

The food we throw away after dinner is just the tip of a massive iceberg of a problem worldwide.

Dishes are put in front of you every day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. While you enjoy the taste of fresh ingredients, have you ever wondered who grew your rice? Where did the strawberries in your dessert come from? And where do all those scraps end up after you finish your meal?

As a consumer, you might feel a bit guilty about wasting food, but you are just a small part of a mammoth global problem. The fact is, around one-third of all the food produced for human consumption -- equivalent to 1.3 billion tonnes a year -- never even reaches consumers' tables.

The estimate is contained in a sobering report called "The State of Food and Agriculture: moving forward on food loss and waste reduction" by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Food loss and waste are recognised as a threat not only to global food security but also to the economy and the environment, says the United Nations agency. For poor smallholder producers in developing countries, quantitative losses mean less food available for consumption, resulting in food and nutrition insecurity.

It also represents a loss of economic value in the food production and supply chain. A Boston Consulting Group study on tackling food waste has forecast that by 2030, annual food loss and waste will jump to 2.1 billion tonnes, worth roughly US$1.5 trillion.

Food waste also has an environmental impact because when food decomposes, it is converted into greenhouse gases and methane, which has a global warming potential 25 times higher than that of carbon dioxide (CO2).

About 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from food loss and waste.

If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest generator of greenhouse gases in the world behind only China and the US, Alan Adams, sustainability director at the packaging technology company Sealed Air, told a recent online panel organised by Food Industry Asia.

Tanmay Bhargava, head of Asia Pacific, Intello Labs SUPPLIED


Food loss and waste represent a substantial global issue, and the scale of the problem varies depending on a number of factors in each country. Although accurate estimates and information are not available in many countries, there are some common patterns of food loss and waste problems.

Food loss is often referred to as food for human consumption that never reaches the consumer's shopping basket because of inefficiencies in food production.

Globally, around 14% of food produced is lost from post-harvest up to but excluding the retail level. In order to tackle food losses, "it's about looking at supply chain efficiency and performance", said Mr Adams.

Food loss results from wide-ranging limitations including poor harvesting techniques, climate conditions, inadequate storage, poor transport and processing, lack of cooling facilities, inefficient packaging, and marketing challenges.

"Food loss is less in the developed countries, and more so in developing countries," says Tanmay Bhargava, head of Asia Pacific at Intello Labs, an India-based agri-tech company that uses artificial intelligence to measure the quality of fresh produce.

According to the FAO report, central and southern Asia account for the highest percentage of food loss at 21%, followed by North America and Europe (16% ), while the percentage in East Asia and Southeast Asia is 8%.

Food loss at the producer level has many causes, said Mr Bhargava. "We have seen, especially in developing countries both in India and Southeast Asia, that farmers don't have the right set of information" about when to harvest, especially for long-life-cycle crops, or when is the appropriate ripeness, and "they don't have the resources to be able to grade and sort their produce at the farm gate itself".

"The earlier you find that 'bad' item, the easier it is for you to find an alternative use for it," he added, explaining that once blemished or misshapen but otherwise perfectly edible produce enters the supply chain, it's going to be wasted because it doesn't meet the requirements of the end-user such as a supermarket.

The "inferior" produce could go to a local market or food processing unit where it could be put to use, he said.

Mr Bhargava points out that it is important to create additional supply chains for produce that is considered inferior, because consumers who don't mind eating it might not have a supermarket nearby in any case.

Robust cold chain management together with efficient packaging can also play an important role in preserving food and extending shelf life in the journey along the supply chain.

Biotechnology can be a help in maintaining shelf life and reducing the spoilage of perishable food during storage and shipment period.

A release of bioactive vapour from packaging inserts used in a controlled storage atmosphere can "extend the shelf life of perishable foods by up to three-fold in storage and transit without any additional chemicals touching the food supply", according to Aidan Mouat, CEO of Hazel Technologies, a US-based agri-tech company that aims to eliminate spoilage and food waste in the supply chain.

If food waste were a country, it would be the world's third-largest greenhouse gas generator, says Alan Adams, sustainability director of Sealed Air. SUPPLIED


Food waste is another term that falls under the umbrella of food loss. It often refers to food that is discarded either by choice or due to being left to spoil or expired as a result of negligence. It also includes food left uneaten after preparation.

Food waste usually occurs in downstream stages of the supply chain including distribution, retail, food services, and at the household consumer level.

"As we develop and our lifestyles are changing, food waste is actually on the increase partly because of our lifestyle choices," said Mr Adams, pointing out that behavioural changes are required in order to reduce food waste.

He sees a greater role for packaging, which has "evolved also to fit with our modern lifestyles", of eating on the go, microwaving in packaging and requiring convenient access and storage.

Food packaging could carry more messages such as how to use food properly from storage, accurate cooking instructions, even how to use leftovers after completed meals.

However, food date labelling practices widely used in the industry are "a significant problem that still exists", Mr Adams added, suggesting that labels such as "use by", "best by (or best before)", and "sell by" create confusion and therefore lead to "unnecessary waste".

The "use by" date relates to food safety. Food can be eaten until the use-by date but not after. "Best by" suggests when a product will be of optimum expected quality including flavour, texture, aroma and appearance. Many consumers do not realise that this is not an expiration date.

The "sell by" date, meanwhile, is used to inform retailers how long to display the product on the shelves.

Biotechnology innovations are available that can increase shelf life by up to three times, says Aidan Mouat, CEO of Hazel Technologies. SUPPLIED


In 2017, approximately 17.5 million tonnes, or 64% of the garbage collected by municipalities nationwide in Thailand, was organic waste, according to data from the Pollution Control Department.

The Bangkok- and Phuket-based non-profit organisation SOS Thailand has set out to grapple with food loss and waste problems by working with hotels, supermarkets, restaurants and cafes to help manage and sort quality surplus food. It is then distributed to those in need such as orphanages, refugee communities, homeless and low-income communities, and centres for people with disabilities.

The organisation -- SOS stands for Scholars of Sustenance -- says on its website that it has served 3.1 million meals, reduced 13 million kilogrammes of food waste, and saved 2.5 million kg of carbon emissions in the past four years.

PakDone, which means "vegetable is done" in Thai, is another Thai startup aiming to reduce food waste by providing an easy-to-use composting toolkit.

The toolkit includes a three-tiered clay tower with a lid to store organic waste and facilitate decomposition, and a compost starter to help speed the process. The waste will eventually transform into compost, which is a good fertiliser for soil and plants.

"I'm from the city, and I don't really know the origin of my foods," PakDone co-founder Manita Vivatsethachai told Asia Focus. Her desire to live a self-reliant and sustainable life got her started on her journey.

Ms Manita's attempt to improve poor soil in order to create a small vegetable garden was a starting point for PakDone.

Turning organic waste into useful compost is connecting it back to its source, so the goal of PakDone is to see people in the city live in a way that supports nature, she said.

PakDone also aims to raise awareness and educate people to be proactive about waste management. "We want people to think before throwing trash in the bin," she added.

Yulanda Chung, head of sustainability at DBS SUPPLIED


Reducing food loss and waste needs collaboration from everyone in the supply chain including farmers, processors, distributors and consumers to change their management practices, technologies and behaviour.

However, doing so requires investments of time and money, which in the view of some parties could outweigh the benefits. Credit constraints and lack of information can also hinder investments.

Incentives or removal of obstacles could be one way to encourage businesses to get serious about reducing food loss and waste.

Governments often use "a carrot approach or a stick approach" to address issues, observes Mr Adams of Sealed Air: "They will give an incentive to do better or they are going to tax you if you don't do that."

Singapore-based DBS Bank, on the other hand, is all about the carrots. One of the tools it uses is sustainability-linked loans to support social enterprises with ambitious goals, according to Yulanda Chung, head of sustainability of DBS.

"We do follow and are guided by our customers' innovations," she said, adding that the bank also uses other instruments to nudge and incentivise customers to do better.

It is backing Chew's Agriculture, a leading local egg producer that aims to produce cage-free eggs. Under the terms of the loan, if the company acquires Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) certification -- which Ms Chung says is "not easy" to get -- it will receive a discount on its interest margin.

The bank has also provided a grant to TreeDots, an online platform that links businesses with unsold inventory to potential buyers "to prevent perfectly edible food from ending up in the bin", said Ms Chung.

Another social enterprise is Edible Garden City, whose mission is to help more people grow their own food by optimising Singapore's underutilised spaces such as rooftops or under viaducts.

So far, the company has designed and built more than 200 edible gardens for hospitals, hotels, restaurants, schools, office buildings, even private residential homes in Singapore.

"If the source of food is close to you, you are also able to reduce food loss and food waste along the way," Ms Chung points out.

Mr Bhargava of Intello Labs believes there is one area where governments could help more. "This may sound far-fetched," he admits, given that "nobody actually knows how much food that they're throwing away in the supply chain", but he proposes that governments find better ways to monitor places where food is being dumped.

At the same time, he stressed that companies need to be honest and very diligent in monitoring what they are doing with their food.

PakDone founder Manita Vivatsethachai aims to get more Thai people into composting by offering an easy-to-use system consisting of a three-tiered clay tower to store organic waste. SUPPLIED

Do you like the content of this article?