Food waste has gone viral
Solutions for reducing food loss and waste
Before COVID-19, food waste amounted to about 33% of global food production and consumption (1). The current COVID-19 lockdown measures are expected to push this percentage even higher, for example due to catering industry companies that need to get rid of expired food products, food production companies that are forced to switch their portfolio from out-of-home products to food retail products and (unnecessary) food hoarding by consumers.
To bring this point home: 33% of all food produced globally works out at approximately 1,300,000,000,000 kilograms of food (1.3 billion tons) (2). This is about 185 kg per world inhabitant, over half a kilo every single day. The value of this massive loss is around 0.9 trillion euros.
- Graph: food loss & waste per region
- Impact and benefit
- Combining Sustainable Development Goals & Profit
- Questions? Get in touch!
These alarming numbers indicate that eliminating food waste can spectacularly improve the global food chain. Cutting food loss and waste throughout the world and at each stage in the food value chain will not only greatly mitigate the environmental impact of the food system, but also increase its efficiency. With the world population expected to reach 10 billion in 2050, we face a massive challenge in sustainably feeding everyone, which further underpins the need for action.
Given the regional differences that exist regarding what is wasted and where waste occurs (see the graph below), varying approaches are needed to combat food waste.
Food loss & waste per region
Industrialised and higher-income countries see more food loss and waste relative to other countries. In North America and Oceania, over 40% of the food produced is never eaten, and in most industrialised countries, approximately half of total food waste is incurred at the consumption stage of the value chain, by individuals. In developing and less industrialised countries, approximately 20% of food is lost or wasted, and in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia most of the loss occurs in production, handling and storage.
Impact and benefit
Reductions in food loss and waste would positively impact the bottom line of many companies throughout the food chain, while improving sustainability and food security. If food waste were to be cut in half, most of the food recovered would be vegetables, dairy products, grains and fruits. These food groups should be targeted to reduce the environmental impact of food waste and loss, though it is important to note that reducing loss and waste in meat production would result in significant reductions in GHG emissions.
Reducing food waste makes economic sense for all stakeholders across the value chain. Farmers are able to sell more of what they produce. Retailers lose no money on unsold food. Consumers save money they would otherwise spend on food that would not be eaten. However, not everyone is aware of the impact that reducing food waste and losses can have. Stakeholders in the food industry should therefore actively encourage and educate businesses and consumers to waste less.
There are a number of solutions that businesses can implement to reduce food loss and waste. They can enact policy that improves post-harvest infrastructure, food transport, processing and packing. They can seek more collaboration along the supply chain, training and equipping producers, and educating consumers. However, businesses struggle to realise the cost savings associated with these solutions. Sometimes this is because they lack access to reliable markets, sometimes because they are unaware of why and where food is wasted.
To overcome these challenges we would like to highlight five solutions:
- Food safety insight - Sensors and machine-learning algorithms tracking freshness are helping retailers cut food losses along the value chain.
One of the difficulties in preventing food loss is that it is not always clear what stakeholders can do differently to ensure freshness and prolong the shelf life of foods. Walmart’s ‘Eden’ suite of digital products presents a solution for this. Eden is able to track food from farm to store display, leveraging machine-learning algorithms and sensors to provide retailers with more complete data about the freshness of food products. This can inform their decisions about where food should be routed, when it should be displayed, and what the appropriate shelf life of a product is. The technology has already prevented US$86 million (±€78 million) in waste in Walmart stores across the US3.
Another example is the use of Natural Language Processing in monitoring food safety issues, as Amazon is doing4. Automatically interpreting consumer feedback enables early detection of food safety issues. This not only helps to head off potential health problems, but also enables earlier interventions that prevent loss.
- Food waste insight - Better insight into food waste through AI helps food service providers develop targeted action plans.
In developing plans to prevent food waste, a key challenge is knowing what is thrown out, how much, and where this food originates. Winnow builds artificial intelligence tools to help chefs run more profitable and sustainable kitchens by cutting food waste in half. One of their products, called Vision, is a smart waste bin that uses a camera, scales and artificial intelligence to recognise different foods, identify specific menu items in the bin, and even deduce why certain foods are being thrown out. The system is able to predict food consumption with 80% accuracy and its insights have, for example, helped the global catering company ISS save 13,500 kg of food at one Belgian site alone5.
Similarly, Leanpath's food waste prevention solution cuts food waste by 50% and reduces labour and operating costs, making professional kitchens more profitable. They combine food waste trackers with an analytical platform that provides insights to help prevent waste. Among the customers that the company has helped is a Spanish hotel, which reduced food waste by 58%6.
- Supply chain traceability - Digital technologies like blockchain can bring order and transparency to the system as food moves from farm to plate.
Experimentation is underway with new technologies that enable a more seamless handoff of food data as it moves through the value chain. Ultimately, this will give customers more trust in the safety of their food, resulting in less waste. An example of such a technology is the award-winning start-up Connecting Food, which uses blockchain technology to trace products and digitally audit them in real time as they move through the food chain. Benefits of this include the facilitation of product recalls, increased transparency for customers and above all reduction of food waste7.
- Market access - Better market access prevents post-harvest food losses on smallholder farms.
Linking producers to profitable markets is an important step in increasing investment in food loss reduction activities8. For many smallholder farms, however, especially in developing countries, this is easier said than done. In Kenya, Twiga Foods has presented a solution to this challenge9. Their mobile platform helps connect smallholder farmers to retail vendors in cities where they can access markets for their produce and get the most competitive prices. The solution has helped in reducing post-harvest losses by 25%.
- Make food for the future – New technologies such as freeze drying help to make the most of residual fresh food streams.
With modern drying technology, it is possible to conserve produce (fruit and vegetables) while retaining up to 98% of the nutritional value. For their products, the start-up Future Kitchens uses a combination of different drying technologies. They buy produce from over-production and class-2 streams, and manufacture powders that can be turned into top quality smoothies, soups and baby food. The recipes have been co-created with chefs and are hard to distinguish from freshly cooked food.
The benefits of high quality drying are impressive. The process extends the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables from the current weeks/months to 25 years. The products do not need to be cooled and are up to 90% lighter due to the water that is taken out. As a consequence, there is less weight and volume to transport, which reduces pollution. Meanwhile, as overproduction is now processed to food, it is not left to rot, which prevents greenhouse gas emissions (rotten fruit and vegetables emit methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas).
Future Kitchens is currently in pilot phase, but in the coming months they are going to onboard an investor to build the technology back-end and scale the proposition. After its first experiments in Europe, Future Kitchens aims to launch their product and technology in Africa, where 30-50% of produced food goes to waste while a still significant part of the population is undernourished.
One of the main challenges is to improve the (energy) efficiency in the drying process and even make it circular in the near future. With the dried components, Future Kitchens sees potential to enable fully personalise smoothies, soups and baby food.
Combining Sustainable Development Goals & Profit
Though it may be hard for companies to see the added benefit of reducing food loss and waste, the solutions outlined above show that there are plenty of ways across the supply chain to do so. Smart decisions in this area can make a major contribution towards halving global food waste in line with the Sustainable Development Goals10, while at the same time boosting company profits and brand value. Good for business and good for the world.
- Gustavsson J, Cederberg C, Sonesson U, Van Otterdijk R, Meybeck A. Global food losses and food waste: extent, causes and prevention. Rome:
- FAO, 2011.FAO. 2019. The State of Food and Agriculture 2019. Moving forward on food loss and waste reduction. Rome.