The world is talking about a food revolution. I was at the Milan Expo in May. This year’s theme is ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. Participating countries were trying to demonstrate different visions of future food production and showcase sustainable solutions to meet the world’s increasing demand for food and energy.
The challenge is tough with the global population expected to top nine billion by 2050. This means two billion more mouths to feed. Many say that more food needs to be produced. As estimated by the FAO, under a business-as-usual scenario, the world needs to produce 60 % more food by 2050.
BAU demands 60% more food by 2050; new models needed
However, the current model is already putting great pressure on the environment: agriculture accounts for 70 % of global freshwater withdrawals; let alone land use and other resources inputs such as energy, fertilizers and pesticides.
Imagine if the world has to produce 60% more food. Continuation of the current norm is certainly not going to be sustainable. New solutions are needed to double the supply without adding more pressure on the environment while keeping climate change in check.
Eat more bugs and organs?
Some propose new food sources for human consumption. The National Geographic is exploring ‘Future of Food’ with its eight-month special series and asking: “Should we eat more bugs?” The Economist even challenged its readers with insect-laced ice cream.
Changing diet is possible – China is encouraging its people to eat more grain & less meat
Past experiences show that people could be convinced to include “untraditional” food sources into their diet under particular historical events – just like how Americans started to eat organs during 1940s as a patriotic act to ensure meat supply for their troops fighting overseas. Since 2015, Chinese government introduced potatoes as the country’s fourth staple crop after rice, wheat and corn. It is also encouraging people to change to a diet with more grain and less meat.
But, we have to admit that food is such an important element in many cultures. It may be easy for some Chinese to adopt a potato-based diet, but it can be quite challenging for some to accept unconventional meat like Icelandic “Hrútspungur”. To find 60% more food sources, we look beyond bugs and organs.
Farm to fork: food losses & waste vary greatly across regions
Actually, one often overlooked low-hanging fruit is food wasted along the way from farm production to our table. The global annual food waste is around 1.6 billion tonnes (of “primary product equivalents“). This could help feed some 795 million people who are still undernourished around the world. The direct economic cost of this is about USD750 billion (excluding fish and seafood) every year. So, aside from increasing productivity and hunting for new food sources, we should start to seriously think about how to reduce our food waste ‘from farm to fork’.
A FAO study showed that food losses and waste generated by every person each year varies greatly across different regions, from the lowest in the South & Southeast Asia at up to 140 kg/pax/year to the highest in the North America & Oceania at up to 310 kg/pax/year (see chart below). In fact, the North America & Oceania is more than twice as wasteful as the South & Southeast Asia.
Global annual food losses and waste are ~1.6 billion tonnes
Per capita value varies across regions – North America & Oceania is over 2x that of South & Southeast Asia
We can see from the above chart that, in more industrialized regions, consumer behavior (including diet, food quality expectation and attitude to food waste) contributes more to food waste at the table. The share of food losses and waste during the production to retailing is relatively higher in the South & Southeast Asia where it is up to 94%. Indeed, in developing countries, most of the food is wasted during logistics, trade and processing. In addition, economics (margins and transport costs) also matter.
Industry actions needed as consumers are slow to change
Nevertheless, despite better infrastructure in developed countries, the overall food losses and waste are still great across all regions. And since consumer behavior is slow to change, surely actions need to come from the industry itself.
Industry commitment to reduce food waste
In June 2015, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), an industry consortium, passed the “Food Waste Resolution” and committed to halve food waste within the operations of its 400 retailer and manufacturers members by 2025. These include big retailers such as WAL-MART (US), METRO (Germany), China Resources Retail Group (China) and Dairy Farm (Hong Kong).
400 retailers to halve food waste by 2025
Two approaches will be taken: 1) to prevent food loss and waste and redistribute to people in need; and 2) to recycle inedible food for animal feed, industrial application, soil enrichment and energy generation.
In addition to industry commitment, in countries like China with large population and agriculture & food production, policies are also being set to address the food losses & waste issue. President Xi mounted a “Clean Your Plate” campaign in 2013. Recently, the NDRC, State Grain Administration and the MoF also jointed released the ‘Grain Storage and Supply Security Plan (2015-2020)’ to reduce grain loss. These are necessary as China faces more and more challenges to meet rising demand for food, water and energy.
Saving grain loss can save more water than irrigation savings
In 2014, 165 million tonnes of grain or 27 % of China’s total grain output was transported across provinces. Due to mismanagement and backward infrastructure, a significant amount of grain losses are incurred during long-distance transportation, processing and storage: over 35 million tonnes annually. It means that 1 in 5 tonnes of grain transported inter-provincially didn’t reach the end market.
China’s plan to reduce 13 mn tonnes of grain losses = 10 bn m3 water saving > half of a mega water diversion project
China wants to save 13 million tonnes or a third of grain losses every year by 2020. The plan also says that such savings equal to saving 10 billion m3 of water. To give you an idea: the completed Eastern and Middle Routes of the South-North Water Diversion Project can currently transfer on average 18.3 billion m3 of water every year. So the water savings from reducing grain loss is more than half of the current annual water diversion.
Moreover, such water saving is significant compared to irrigation water saving. As we talked about before, water savings from meeting government targets on irrigation efficiency proved to be small. Bigger improvements can be limited by small average farm plot sizes and difficulty in accessing finance. The increasing occurrence of droughts also hampers irrigation savings.
In addition to water savings, by reducing 13 million tonnes of grain losses every year, China could also save 4.68 million tonnes of standard coal equivalent of energy and an annual cut of 12.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. It is clear why the government wants more efforts in upgrading infrastructure of logistics and storage and improving management system.
Room to improve: around 40% grain transport was via railways & half of grain output is stored by farmers with poor infrastructure
However, there are challenges: Only around 40% of China’s internal grain flow was transported via railways 1, with the rest via smaller means such as trucks and ships. About half of China’s grain output is stored by the farmers with poor storage conditions and infrastructure. There are significant opportunities for relevant industries like logistics and storage to grow. Indeed, advance rail transportation equipment and agriculture machinery are both in the “Made in China 2025” list. This trend is inevitable, as China has no choice but to transform its economy to be circular and more sustainable, given its resources constraints.
Are we really ready for a food revolution?
But, are we really ready for a food revolution? I cannot help but think about my experience at the Milan Expo: many country pavilions provided their local delicacies for visitors, but most of the drinks and food were served in disposable packaging. Within a short period of time, I ended up with all sorts of aluminium foil plates, plastics folks, cups & strolls.
Aside from food waste, food packaging waste is another issue to be tackled
What was worse is that the trash bins put plastic and metals together (see images below). Food as we consume today often comes with packaging – sometimes simply too much. We should also think about reducing these wastes as packaging requires lots of energy and resource inputs to produce and recycle. At an Expo about ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’, packaging could be better dealt with. Our future sustainable food culture certainly shouldn’t be like this!
Real actions needed for a hungry & thirsty future
There appears to be a long way from commitments to action. But I believe changes will come as countries like China start to seriously tackle these issues. We, consumers, should also start thinking about how to reduce waste at our table. In a hungry and thirsty future, every grain counts.
1. According to NBSC, in 2013, about 104.5 million tonnes of grains were transported by railways.
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