Sunday, October 14, 2012

Challenge for Future Supply Chains: Reducing food Wastage

Have you ever eaten a sandwich at any restaurant that has the top/bottom crust of a loaf of bread in it? Chances are minimal. Now, millions of sandwiches are made at thousand of supermarkets and stores everyday which use millions of loaves of bread. Did you ever think of what happens to all the crusts? This is what happens:

 Crusts of bread being sent to landfill from behind the stores of a supermarket in North America

In most of the cases supermarkets and stores directly send this “waste” to landfills. When I and you think about food waste we imagine food expired or rejected due to QC reasons, packed into bags and sent to landfills. Something like this:

Expired and rejected food items sent to landfills

But actually, most of the food waste that takes place, happens in the upstream of the supply chain. Consider the above case of shelving of bread loaf crusts. Add to that rejection of thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables everyday just because they don’t meet the “aesthetic requirement”. Now multiply all this by the number of food retail stores across the country and then you know of the magnitude of waste I’m talking about.

A typical landfill site in the US

In my previous blog post, I wrote about how improper transportation, inadequate storage facilities and inefficient warehouses lead to heavy food losses in India. This post builds on that idea but in a different setting. The primary topic is still food waste in the supply chain but the setting is countries like the US, UK etc. which have big retail outlets for food and the time context is the near future. Essentially: what can we do to make the food supply chain really efficient? And by really efficient I mean having reducing wastage of food.

The US food supplier industry produces as much as four times the nutrient requirements of its people. This is in many ways one of the biggest human achievements and something that we should be proud of. Today, we are far away from hunger than we ever were. But, in our quest for surplus, we’ve achieved a term that we should be ashamed of – colossal wastage. In his book titled ‘Waste’, Tristram Stuart talks about how countries in Europe and North America throw away up to 50% of the food produced – more than enough to feed all the hungry people in the world. He also describes at length the obsession with having more agricultural output and how that has led to massive deforestation among other problems. Although there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution in sight, he argues how having more efficient food supply chains can mean lesser wastage and possibly reduce the extent of human hunger. One of the solutions he mentions is diverting the rejected food from landfills to pork farms for their feed. Of course, the inorganic farming industry would be up in arms against such an idea but it is, in a way, a need of the hour. (For those of you interested but don’t have much time, his TED talk briefly outlines the contents of his book and possible solutions.)

Whereas most of the wastage that happens in Indian food supply chains is pre-fork due to a highly inefficient supply chain, wastage in the US happens between fork and landfill. In this report by NRDC, the author highlights how between 40 – 50% of the food actually ends up in landfill due to different reasons.

Although there have been initiatives like the Walmart food donation program and Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) which set targets to reduce waste, these are still infant steps. So the big question I leave you with is:

How can we use technology (if it does need to be used) in future supply chains to reduce or eliminate this colossal wastage of food?

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