A major international agriculture conference took place in Abu Dhabi earlier this week. At the conference a large delegation from Wageningen UR presented its method of reducing food waste around the world. Research in the food chain is needed to expose the hot spots. For example: what happens to crooked beans?
1,300,000,000,000,000 kilos. That is how much food was wasted worldwide this year, according to World Food Organization FAO. These 1.3 gigatonnes of food consist of grains, vegetables and meat. In developed countries it is mainly the supermarkets and consumers that waste food: the latter group alone throw out 30 to 40 percent of the food they buy. In developing countries most of the food waste occurs through postharvest losses and difficulties related to transport, infrastructure and food-processing. This is not just bad for global food security, says Hilke Bos-Brouwers, but also for the environment, because with all that food you are also effectively throwing out huge quantities of artificial fertilizer, fuel, seed and fresh water. The 1.3 gigatonnes of discarded food goes to the dump or incinerator, gets composted or – in the best-case scenario – generates bio-energy. Bos-Brouwers is doing research on sustainable food chains and food waste at Food & Biobased Research (FBR). She also helped set up the Food Waste Monitor in the Netherlands. This became necessary in 2009 when agriculture minister Gerda Verburg launched a campaign to reduce food waste in the Netherlands by 20 percent by 2015. ‘If you want to achieve that, you have to start measuring the wastage,’ says Bos-Brouwers. ‘But how do you do that? We got the job of figuring that out.’ It took the researchers a full year and a half to come to an agreement with the businesses involved on how food waste could be made measurable.
Measuring food waste turned out to be far from straightforward: many data are simply not available. Only food waste by consumers has been documented twice. This was done by the Nutrition Centre. In order to get the measure of the wasteful Dutch consumer, the Nutrition Centre had the contents of 200 garbage containers in the Netherlands assessed in 2010 and 2013. Apart from that, the researchers relied mainly on waste flow and waste-processing data, which cannot usually be related to the sector the waste comes from. ‘What is more, not all garbage is food waste,’ says Bos-Brouwers. And it proved difficult to trace that waste, because companies in the chain, including supermarkets, caterers and grocers, were reluctant to publicize how much food they throw out. ‘They see it as sensitive information, because competitors will get an insight into their business operations. What is more, it is bad publicity,’ explains Bos-Brouwers.
Thanks to these limitations, the Food Waste Monitor has a margin of error, and Bos-Brouwers cannot say with certainty whether food waste has gone down in the Netherlands over the past few years. ‘Our figures suggest that food waste went up a bit until 2011, and then went down a bit. Up to now the number of kilos of wasted food appears to have stayed stable, whereas there is more food on the market now than there was in 2010. So that means a small drop, but certainly not a drop of 20 percent.’ Meanwhile, she wants to get a more precise idea of waste in the food chain though a chain analysis. A nice example of this is her search for the crooked green bean. ‘You only get straight beans in the supermarket, whereas any amateur gardener knows that a lot of green beans are crooked. So what happens to all the crooked beans? If they come from the Netherlands, the food industry cuts them up for tinned beans and ready meals. That approach minimizes waste. But if the green beans come from Egypt, the crooked ones are not used. And if the local market has no use for crooked beans either, there are big losses there.’
ABU DHABI About 2000 researchers and policymakers, including 50 ministers, got together in Abu Dhabi on 9, 10 and 11 March for the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA). This international conference on innovations in the agriculture sector was partly organized by Wageningen UR. Besides policymakers, mainly from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, representatives of the World Bank and the Gates Foundation were present at the conference. Wageningen UR was represented by Louise Fresco and 10 researchers, who gave presentations on three themes: food waste, climate-smart agriculture (sustainable agriculture) and edible cities (urban farming). For more information see: www.innovationsinagriculture.com
So food waste occurs in different ways in different cases, concludes Bos-Brouwers, and you need to identify the hot spots for wastage per production group, in order then to look for solutions. Dutch supermarkets, for example, could jointly decide to sell crooked green beans again, or to buy the crooked ones from Egypt along with the straight ones. But that will only happen if the supermarkets stand to gain economically. Bos-Brouwers: ‘For companies, the biggest incentive for tackling wastage is efficiency and cost-cutting.’ One possible solution is to process fresh produce so that it will keep. ‘Take the surplus of apples and pears in the Netherlands caused by the Russian boycott. By making apple and pear sauce, you can preserve that surplus of fruit and sell it later.’ The aim is to create efficient food chains, in which all the links in the chain – farm production, the necessary inputs, storage, transport and packaging – create as much added value as possible for the product. Bos-Brouwers’ colleague Toine Timmermans has worked out that approach for developing countries, where more than half of all produce often gets lost between harvest and consumption. Through a Postharvest Network of Excellence, companies in the food chain can fine-tune their production better so that less food is wasted.
A good survey can lead to surprising insights. Six years ago, for instance, Wageningen animal researcher Bastiaan Meerburg discovered that rodents devour 5 to 15 percent of stored food in Asia and Africa. In so doing, rats and mice take the food out of the mouths of about 280 million people in developing countries, calculated Meerburg and his overseas colleagues. A thorough campaign to combat rodents would vastly improve food security in many countries. But developing countries can also make much more use of waste flows in the food chain, as research by Christiaan Bolck of Food & Biobased Research has shown. Cassava peelings, for instance, can be processed into livestock feed, and you can make pallets out of banana stalks, packaging out of tomato leaves and construction materials out of coconut waste. This kind of sustainable use of natural resources is consistently central to the Wageningen approach to reducing waste in the food chain.