Covid called on to act on food waste crisis in Southeast Asia: experts


Fruits and vegetables thrown in a trash can

Peter Dazeley | The image bank | Getty Images

SINGAPORE – Covid-19 is a red flag that has highlighted the urgency of tackling the global food waste crisis, experts and industry players told CNBC.

Amid global lockdowns and travel stoppages, the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in supply networks as disruptions created bottlenecks in agricultural labor, transportation and logistics and triggered global food shortages and price hikes.

“The pandemic is a very good wake-up call,” said William Chen, director of the food science and technology program at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

“Before Covid-19, people took climate change less seriously because food came easily. But now this problem is starting to surface in people’s minds,” he added. “I don’t see it as a lost cause, but a good opportunity to clean up the current system.”

Food waste remains one of the world’s biggest challenges.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that one-third of all food produced, or 1.3 billion tonnes, is lost or wasted each year. Food waste also accounts for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to another UN report.

Reducing food waste could generate $ 700 billion in savings, according to the Boston Consulting Group. And Southeast Asian businesses are getting on the bandwagon and engaging in food waste prevention, as well as redistribution and recycling of excess food.

A growing appetite to fight food waste

In 2020, Singapore generated 665,000 tonnes of food waste, or about 11% of the total waste generated in Singapore.

Emerging from the pandemic, more and more hotels and airlines are now tackling food waste and putting sustainability “at the top” on their list of priorities, said Rayner Loi, co-founder and CEO of Singapore-based AI food waste management startup Lumites.

This was a radical departure from a few years ago, when food waste was “barely on the radar” and it was “incredibly difficult” to have conversations with industry players. declared Law.

The growing receptivity is due in part to increased education, new government regulations and sustainability that are high on the business agenda, he said.

The company has developed an artificial intelligence-based tracker installed in bins to measure and track all food waste. By learning in real time what and how much food waste has been generated, chefs could take action to reduce the amount produced for certain dishes on the buffet line.

This reduces food waste by up to 40% and food costs by up to 8%, Lumitics found.

From 2024, owners and occupants of commercial and industrial premises in Singapore that generate large amounts of food will be required to separate their food waste for processing, according to new legislation.

Lumitics is a partner of large hotel chains such as Accor, Hyatt, Marina Bay Sands, as well as carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Etihad Airways.

It plans to expand to 1,000 locations over the next five years in Asia-Pacific, starting with Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia.

“The whole industry is starting to realize the idea that food waste is one of the biggest untapped cost reduction opportunities for any kitchen,” Law said.

Turning food waste into “surprise boxes”

Another player in the fight against food waste is Yindii, a Thai anti-food waste startup. He launched an app to connect environmentally conscious Bangkok residents with bakeries, cafes, supermarkets and restaurants.

These companies fill their unsold inventory in “surprise boxes”, which customers can pick up at prices reduced by 50 to 80% at the end of the day, and have them delivered to their homes.

Yindii founder and French entrepreneur Louis-Alban Batard-Dupré described the food waste situation in Bangkok as “catastrophic”, where only 2% of food waste is recycled.

In Thailand, some 17 million tonnes of unused food is dumped each year, and about 64% of its 27.4 million tonnes of waste is organic waste, which includes food and kitchen waste.

Most of the food companies we met believe they don’t waste a lot. When they start to quickly calculate what 6-14% more revenue is, we usually get a reminder.

Louis-Alban Batard-Dupré

founder, Yindii

Industry players themselves have greatly underestimated the problem.

“Most of the food companies we met think they don’t waste a lot. When they start to quickly calculate what 6-14% more revenue means, we usually get a reminder,” he said. .

The mindsets of traders are also changing, as more brands prepare for a sustainable post-Covid tourism future, he said.

At the time, they were “shy to say they generate food waste because it reveals their stores don’t sell out every day or because it’s a dirty word,” Batard-Dupré said. “But telling the world that you are fighting for the planet is so much more powerful than trying to cover up such a systemic problem that every business has.”

Discarded watermelons near the Brahmaputra River, Bangladesh

Andrea Pistolesi | Stone | Getty Images

To date, Yindii has seen over 20,000 surprise boxes purchased. The redistribution of food that would have been thrown away is also helping many people living below the poverty line, he said.

Yindii partners include hotels such as Hilton Sukhumvit Bangkok, Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok, Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit and JW Marriott. Over the next few months, it is looking to expand to other cities in Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Technology as the way forward

Technology is starting to play a bigger role in the fight against food waste.

Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to food waste as it has many small-scale farms that depend on intensive livestock production and cannot afford to invest in more efficient farming technologies, Chen said. from NTU, who is also a consultant for Asian Development. Bank.

The growing middle class of incomes also consumes more.

One of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals aims to halve food waste by 2030 at the retail and consumer level and reduce food loss along production and supply chains, including after harvest.

The slower we are to act on climate change, the more extreme weather conditions we will see and the greater the likelihood of zoonotic diseases, which could therefore increase food waste.

Audrey chia

associate professor, National University of Singapore Business School

More public-private partnerships will be essential, where “enthusiastic small start-ups” can grow with the help of technology and government funding, or work with large multinational companies to fill in the gaps, Chen said.

Another lucrative business is “upcycling,” which involves taking ingredients that would typically be thrown away and turning them into new, high-quality marketable products.

For example, plant-based seafood company Sophie’s Kitchen uses soybean residue okara as a growing medium for growing microalgae in the fast growing alternative protein market.

Other examples include adding more valuable ingredients like salted eggs to normally discarded fish skin or using black soldier flies to turn food waste into fertilizer, said associate professor Audrey Chia of the National University of Singapore Business School.

Likewise, predictive technology could also help restaurants and retailers estimate food demand or production.

“Ironically, this is a vicious cycle. The longer we take to tackle climate change, the more extreme weather conditions we will see and the greater the likelihood of zoonotic diseases, which could therefore increase the risk of zoonotic diseases. food waste, ”Chia said.

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