The recently released Capgemini Research Institute report, Reflect, Rethink, Reconsider: Why food waste is everybody’s problem, unearths the issue of food waste. It is astounding that while 811 million people around the planet are undernourished, almost 2.5 billion tonnes of food produce are wasted annually. To understand the issue, we speak with Barbara-Anne Bensted, APAC Sustainability Lead at Capgemini, about how food wastage can be curtailed and how both producers and consumers can tackle this problem.
Unravel: According to the report, consumers are already looking at ways to reduce food waste. There has been an 80% year-on-year growth in social media searches for methods to increase the life of food items. What explains this spurt in awareness?
Barbara-Anne Bensted: Today, 72% of consumers say they have become more conscious about their level of food wastage in comparison to 33% before the pandemic.
The rise in consumer consciousness has been consistent across age groups, genders, and income levels, boosted by food inflation and sustainability concerns. The most likely reasons are consumers’ recent experiences of shortages of essential commodities during the pandemic, and the rise in food and energy prices.
Moreover, a majority (58%) of consumers expect food prices to further go up in the next 12 months. Against this backdrop, 56% of consumers want to save costs by cutting food waste.
As a result, we have seen consumers searching for methods to reduce waste, and increase the shelf-life of food.
Unravel: Please help us understand the difference between ‘food loss’ and ‘food waste’.
Ms Bensted: According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, ‘food loss’ refers to food that gets spilled, spoilt, or otherwise lost, or incurs a deterioration in quality and value before reaching the final product stage. Food loss typically occurs at the production, post-harvest, distribution, or processing stages. Estimates suggest that around 1.5 billion tonnes of food is lost annually in farms through the pre-and-post handling, processing, and storage stages.
‘Food waste’ refers to food that has progressed to become a consumable product but is not consumed. Food waste takes place at retail and consumption stages. Nearly 931 million tonnes of food is wasted annually. Furthermore, 61% of food is wasted at the household level (23% of combined food waste and loss), which highlights how critical it is for organisations to create solutions at the consumers’ end.
Unravel: How serious are both issues? What are the numbers at a global level? How does Singapore fare in both ‘food loss’ and ‘food waste’?
Ms Bensted: The magnitude of food loss and waste is huge, as 2.5 billion tonnes of food produce goes uneaten annually – which is 40% of global food production.
Furthermore, the biggest environmental impact of food loss and waste is related to the food supply chain. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) globally (8-10% of global emissions), after the US and China. Food loss and waste constitute one of the most urgent and daunting challenges to our society
Even in Singapore, food waste is one of the biggest waste streams. As per a recent estimate from the National Environment Agency, food waste accounted for about 12% of the total waste generated in Singapore in 2021. This was a 23% rise from 2020. This situation calls for transformation of global food systems.
Unravel: According to the report, 62% of Singapore respondents feel upset at brands/ stores/ supermarkets for not doing more to help them reduce their waste. What more can organisations do?
Ms Bensted: There are many things that organisations can do here.
The first is to provide more clarity on date labels. Only 38% of consumers in Singapore say they fully understand the difference between terms such as “best before,” “consume by,” and “expiry date.” Consumers would also like to see digital labels (such as QR codes) that will provide them with more information on the product’s journey and quality.
Another aspect is to look at product and sustainable packaging innovation which maximises product life. Only about half (53%) of consumers in Singapore believe that organisations use product innovation which enhances the product’s shelf life.
It is also key to educate consumers on how to store for longevity. Globally, 57% of consumers mention that one of the reasons they find it difficult to act against food waste is because product labels do not clearly indicate how to best store and consume food. When consumers were asked how they received information about food storage, only 20% consumers in Singapore said they get it from the information on packaging, and only 13% mentioned commercials or campaigns from food manufacturers or retailers.
One innovative way is to provide recipe ideas (on-pack or online) for leftover food. Our survey reveals that, while 44% of organisations in Singapore assert they provide recipe ideas (on-pack or online) for leftover food, only 15% of consumers feel they receive sufficient support in food preparation.
Finally, technology must be used to inculcate waste avoiding behaviour in consumers. The “Internet of Groceries” also has the potential of connecting organisations and consumers from the very moment the product is picked up at the supermarket, through its storage and cooking, up to its disposal, or ideally, the absence thereof. Consumers could create online shopping lists and add ingredients to their shopping basket based on recommended recipes, as well as validate the freshness of the product through smart labels. Organisations could reach consumers in real time to offer them personalised suggestions, while prices could be adjusted in real time to instantaneously improve the uptake of products with a shorter shelf life.
Unravel: Are there countries in the region or in the world tackling food wastage with policy?
Ms Bensted: To tackle the issue of food waste across the entire supply chain, governments around the world are setting targets, implementing new policies, and creating food waste campaigns aimed at reducing wastage.
For instance, Australia became the first country to set a target to reduce the amount of food waste it generates by 50% by 2030. In 2016, France became the first country to ban supermarkets from throwing away unsold food. Large supermarkets are no longer allowed to throw away good quality food approaching its “best-before” date. Instead, they are forced to donate surplus food to charities and food banks.
However, more work is required in these areas. In our survey, nearly half (47%) of organisations globally mentioned the lack of adequate information on governmental regulations in the area of food waste as one of the top challenges. Also, 74% of organisations rank “ambiguity regarding government regulations on what you are allowed to do with waste” as one of the top challenges.
Unravel: In a post-pandemic world plagued with uncertainties due to the Russia-Ukraine war and skyrocketing food prices, how important is it to address food wastage to ensure food security across the world?
Ms Bensted: It is very crucial.
Today, around 811 million people on the planet are undernourished and about 45% of deaths among children under five years of age are linked to undernutrition. Amazingly, saving just 50% of the food currently lost or wasted each year could end world hunger.
Along with the environmental impact, resources deployed to produce, process, transport, and dispose of food likewise generate a huge amount of waste and expense. Coupled with raging food-price inflation and persistently high energy prices (raising the cost of transporting goods), food loss and waste constitute one of the most urgent and daunting challenges to our society. There is a need for a systemic response here.
The second part of this interview is about how companies can reduce food wastage using technology and why companies that invest in measures to reduce food waste also have a greater return on their investments. It can be read here.
Barbara-Anne Bensted leads Capgemini’s Sustainability practice across Asia-Pacific. Barbara-Anne is an industry recognised technology Influencer with more than 20 years’ experience leading digital transformation programmes across energy, mining and government organisations in Australia, US, Southern Africa, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Barbara-Anne is passionate about the role technology can play in advancing sustainable practices in the public and private sectors.