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The fight against food waste: an objective for organizations too

Recent FAO data reveals that one-third of annual agrifood production is lost or wasted. That’s the equivalent of 1.3 billion tons and worth nearly $1,200 billion. Now FAO and the UN have set the “zero hunger” goal (SDG 2: “end hunger” and SDG 12: “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”). That means that along with sustainability issues, the fight against waste along the entire food supply chain is a top priority that’s fueling new business opportunities. According to the FAO, to ensure that everyone has access to safe, good quality food – and enough of it - eliminating food loss and waste is essential. In general, beyond representing waste per se, what we must realize is that when food isn’t transformed or eaten, and instead it gets thrown away, this generates a waste of all sorts of resources: land, water, energy, soil, capital, and other essential assets that are utilized in food production. And all this not to mention greenhouse gas emissions. But what is the source of food waste?

Food is lost or wasted along the entire supply chain, or better, the entire supply network, from the initial production phases (farming/raising livestock/fishing) to consumption. Unfortunately, there are many different activities and processes that generate food loss or waste. For simplicity’s sake, we can identify three main phases that dramatically impact this phenomenon. First is the production phase, which includes farming/raising livestock/fishing, industrial processes and transportation of foodstuffs. Next comes distribution, which involves players in mass market distribution, retail, and Hospitality, Restaurant e Catering (Ho.Re.Ca.). Last of all is the consumption phase, both domestic and out of home.

But although much effort has focused on production in terms of corporate projects, organizations and legislative initiatives, in the distribution and consumption phases we still see substantial waste, even today, which is why we need to find solutions. For example, with regard to out of home consumption, particularly in the Ho.Re.Ca. channel, the risk of waste can be traced to two causes. On one hand, customers are served too much food (portions are too large), and on the other, too much waste happens in the kitchen. In other words, food is turned into waste before it’s even utilized. In this case, the problem springs from inefficient planning in the transformation phase, improper management of provisioning and inadequate forecasting of demand. As for this last source of waste, technological solutions can be adopted that make it possible to predict, plan and manage the flow of customers and peak times in restaurants, mitigating the risk of waste of raw materials and products.

Likewise, with the help of technology, monitoring systems for food processing can be installed in kitchens. Case in point is Food+ by Compass, a system that can produce huge quantities of data to pinpoint areas where improvement interventions are needed, thanks to technology that weighs and monitors the flow of food waste in network restaurants.

But we need to go beyond introducing systems for analyzing demand, and for planning and monitoring the supply, conservation and processing of food. In fact, to prevent waste it is fundamentally important to change minds and adopt an approach inspired by the principles of the circular economy. This means, for example, creating menus that combine technical and creative aspects, that is, dishes based on recipes in which waste is utilized, inspired by the “zero waste” philosophy. Among the great many examples here, one that stands out is the Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura. He founded the charity Food for Soul, which has set up thirteen food kitchens all over the world that embrace a philosophy which is innovative in its simplicity: “Make the best use of ingredients in every phase of their life. This is where true beauty lies: creating value starting from something that appears to have none.”

And there’s more, as we continue on the theme of sustainable development, that can inspire activities and initiatives making it possible to set in motion circular economy models as solutions for reducing food waste. An interesting case is the association Too Good To Go: the app they’ve developed tells final consumers when food items are overstocked and about to expire; these products can be purchased at a discount at participating stores. A similar initiative is BringTheFood, which immediately makes excess food available for donation to company canteens and school cafeterias, so food – both fresh and cooked – can be recovered and redistributed within 24 hours.
Ho.Re.Ca. plays a key role in the fight against food waste and the development of a sustainable approach. And this is not only because these channels involve end consumers, which means helping spread and strengthen a circular economy, but also because these companies can take the initiative to improve their procurement and processing systems by optimizing the purchase and use of foodstuffs while cutting excess and reducing waste production. In this sense, technology is the essential enabler of sustainable development and growth. The use of digital technologies by Ho.Re.Ca. players, in fact, enables them to improve supply chain processes (like forecasting, managing purchases and planning transformation activities), both to quickly intercept - if not anticipate - consumer preferences, which are continually evolving. With regard to this final aspect, consumer preferences and the competitive landscape are changing more rapidly than they did in the past. Equally apparent is the fact that companies in Ho.Re.Ca. (an industry characterized by a powerful experiential dimension) have to contend with, and keep the pace with, this constantly accelerating rhythm.
The evolution of consumer lifestyles, in particular among the new generations, is demonstrating more and more sophistication in consumption, and growing attention to the question of sustainability. In this sense, technology could be used to ensure a complete user experience for consumers by combining digital and physical environments, and also to guarantee transparency and traceability as far as the origin and transformation of food products.
Thanks too to the adoption of digital technologies, companies will be able to innovate their supply chain processes while capturing the paradigm shift embraced by consumers, who are moving toward models built on a smaller carbon footprint. These companies will be the ones who succeed in developing a business model that is truly grounded in sustainability and the circular economy.