Tackling food loss and food waste

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Some time ago I had a coffee and a fruit pie in a newly established cafeteria, while travelling abroad. It was near closing time and while I was sipping my coffee, the workers began cleaning up and took the cakes out of the cold display. I asked them what they were going to do with the cakes and the simple answer was: “We throw it away.” I asked why and the owner of the shop explained that this was because of health regulations. Especially cakes prepared with fresh cream are not allowed to be sold the next day. All has to be fresh. Later the same week I found out that this is also the case with all kinds of ready prepared sandwiches and snacks that are found nowadays in supermarkets. It made me wonder whether we are headed in the same direction with the rapid urbanization and changing lifestyles that we begin to see here in Ethiopia in general and more specifically Addis Abeba. In addition, we see that in Ethiopia, much food gets lost for other reasons. Two weeks ago, in this column, we saw that fruits and vegetables get damaged and unfit for consumption during their journey from the moment of harvest to the end consumer. Studies suggest that 40% or more of tomatoes, papayas and mangos for example, don’t make it to the consumer. For bananas this is about 20%.  Worldwide, due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. As we saw above, the problems are different, depending on the development state of a country. In emerging economies like Ethiopia, wastage tends to occur primarily at the farmer-producer end of the supply chain. Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure mean that produce is frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions.
In mature economies, more-efficient farming practices and better transport, storage and processing facilities ensure that a larger proportion of the food produced reaches markets and consumers. However, characteristics associated with modern consumer culture mean produce is often wasted through retail and customer behaviour.
The question that we need to find answers to is what we can do to minimise wastage of food in our own context? Authorities, agencies, organizations and producers, involved in one way or another in the production, processing and marketing of food in this country, need to seriously look into this and agree on a way to identify problems that lead to food waste in Ethiopia and design and implement measures for improvement. In my search for answers I came across an article by Reiner Jedermann, Mike Nicometo, Ismail Uysal and Walter Lang, titled “Reducing food losses by intelligent food logistics”.
They argue that food losses can be attributed to two main factors: (i) waste owing to oversupply and (ii) losses owing to the natural decay of food products, which cannot be stopped but are accelerated especially by lacking or poor temperature management or unhygienic conditions.
“Oversupply plays an important role in affluent economies, where people can afford to throw food away. Unnecessary losses of shelf life can also be found in any part of the chain, especially with regard to temperature management as farmers do not pre-cool after harvest, the actual temperature conditions during transport and storage often do not meet the optimal product-specific values; and customers keep fresh products for hours in the warm boot of their car or set the temperature of their fridge to achieve minimal power consumption, thus ignoring the recommended storage temperatures. The cold chain will become more important in the future owing to two factors given by Parfitt et al.: (1) as people’s income grows, they diversify their diet to less ‘dry’ starchy products, such as rice, potatoes and cereals, to more fresh fruits & vegetables, fish and meat, requiring chilled transportation and (2) whereas food is often sold the same day at local markets in rural societies, urbanization requires longer and more complex supply chains.”
What then can be done? In line with the priorities of the Government, programmes can be put in place that build capacity in engineering knowledge, design know-how, and suitable technology to help improve produce handling in the harvest and post-harvest stages of food production. Secondly, we can incorporate waste minimisation while planning and building transport infrastructure and storage facilities along the supply chains. Thirdly, the private sector is a main stakeholder to provide services along entire supply chains. Finally, where things go wrong now, there are great opportunities for Public Private Partnerships to provide solutions.
Where we are part of the problem, let us become part of the solutions instead.

Ton Haverkort