Reduce, re-use, up-cycle: Waste in the global food chain, by Chris Brett, Olam International


    According to the FAO, a third of the food currently produced never reaches our plates. This equates to 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste, a £470 billion economic loss and 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions globally every year. This is especially sobering when we will need an estimated 50% more food by 2030 to feed a booming world population with evolving diets.

    The food industry has a big part to play in solving the conundrum and driving best practices to minimise waste.

    Getting it right from the start
    Nowhere is the interconnectedness of food waste and food security more acute than in developing countries where poor diets, hunger, inadequate infrastructure and food mountains co-exist.

    In these markets, where many of the supply chains for the world’s dietary staples such as rice and wheat begin, more than 40% of food is lost in the pre-consumption stage during harvest, drying, storage and transport. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, up to 150 kilogrammes of food produced is lost per person every year, according to FAO research. Therefore, although some element of waste is inevitable, reducing its scale will have a significant impact on the future of global food security and the sustainability of agricultural development.

    Whether it is maintaining nutrition, taste or quality, a key factor in ensuring more food is fit for consumption is how quickly food moves from crop to consumer. Infrastructure plays a critical role and the reality is that developing markets, like large parts of Africa, still lack the basic transport, facilities and experience to maximise efficiencies at the start of supply chains.

    It will take time and a significant amount of investment from both government and private sector to close these gaps but there are opportunities to reduce crop waste in small, practical ways right now. Solar driers – simple structures for drying cocoa beans – for example are provided to smallholder farmers to ensure beans are dried to the correct moisture level for international manufacturers. The beans are not rejected and the farmer gets the best possible price. Encouraging smallholder farmers to form co-operatives or associations to facilitate fast collection of crops is another key point – again the cocoa industry is one to look at.

    In fact, speed is an underlying factor in tackling waste as the crop moves along the chain. The faster it moves the less likely it is to deteriorate. It may sound obvious, but by bringing refining and processing facilities close to the source of origin it in effect stabilises the product and reduces the risks of spoilage. That’s all very well in developed economies, but for emerging markets this requires significant private investment – and with it a host of challenges from local skill sets to over-coming investor concerns or government demands. Get it right, however, and not only will it reduce wastage but also reduce transport emissions and costs.

    Food ‘waste’ should not be wasted
    But what happens when we do have waste? Are we in the developed world starting to miss a trick? The most basic agricultural practices, spanning thousands of years, have been cyclical and self-supportive as one component of the system feeds, farms and fertilises the other: waste is fed back into the land as organic matter, which in turn produces more crops.

    It is of growing concern, however, that many developed countries are now so focused on turning waste bio-matter into biofuel that farmers are having to spend more on inorganic fertilisers to improve soil condition. In fact it’s ironic that it’s the developed nations’ agri-experts who are demonstrating to smallholders in emerging markets how to feed their biowaste back into the farm to improve soil health.

    Taking a bit of our own medicine might be in order. And where there are constraints, you can often find innovation. Who would have thought that coffee pulp could grow mushrooms? In Cameroon, 3500 small-scale coffee producers have been trained to use waste coffee pulp to grow mushrooms, not just as a crop to sell but as an important source of additional protein for these low income communities.

    Olam tries to practice what it preaches so on the other side of the world, at a tomato processing plant in California we partner with General Mills to use tomato skins and seeds as the main source of nitrogen to produce 10,000 tonnes of yield-boosting, organic compost for tomato growers, generating additional revenue by adding value to agricultural waste.

    Progressing through collective responsibility
    Everyone has a role in securing the future of food but the onus is on major influencers not least the food industry to lead the way. By working creatively and collaboratively, we can embrace the ‘waste not, want not’, roots of agriculture and scale up this cyclical, whole supply chain approach to reducing and re-using food waste.

    A version of this article first appeared on Guardian Sustainable Business

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