Escavox chief executive Luke Wood on why the food waste challenge should be viewed as an opportunity, not a cost
Tackling the global food waste challenge need not cost you the earth. In fact, it can make you money.
I want to be clear that reducing food waste is critically important. In Australia alone, we pile up about 7.6m tonnes of waste annually. If you want to know what that looks like, it is enough to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground to the brim nine times over, according to reputable estimates.
In the face of such massive volumes, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenge we confront.
But I see the food waste challenge as an opportunity, not a cost.
Focus on your cold chain
Central to my thinking is that a high functioning cold chain is essential for reducing food waste and increasing the productivity and value of our fresh produce sector.
Focusing on waste is not the answer to our waste problem. Focusing on improving food quality via increased efficiency in our supply chains is our best solution to this global problem.
To get a measure on ‘how’ to make those improvements, first understand your ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’.
Without independently captured, unbiased, verifiable data that tells you what is being lost and at what points on the supply chain journey, you will have little hope of constructing a plan to achieve your goals.
Without measurement, there is no management.
To be upfront, I have a professional stake in food producers adopting more supply chain data technology to improve their operations; but I am not the only voice in this space.
The call to action comes directly from the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals.
Aligned to that mission is a raft of publications aimed at galvanising efforts to bring food waste to heel, and where supply chain inefficiency is repeatedly identified as central to food waste accumulation.
For example, Stop Food Waste Australia’s (SFWA) 2021-25 Strategic Plan outlines four primary areas of action to halve Australia’s A$36.6bn annual food waste problem by 2030.
That amount of food waste generates 17.5m tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions annually, representing 4 per cent of Australia’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
If we do not get food waste under control our efforts to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 become that much harder. We either fail at achieving the target or we crib the carbon savings from somewhere else in the economy.
Either way, it is bad for business and bad for the planet.
What experts say
The prospect of not seriously tackling food waste is even harder to stomach when an estimated one in five Australians are food insecure. Food charities have seen an average increase of 50 per cent in demand for their services during the pandemic.
Several of Australia’s biggest food companies have signed up to SFWA’s voluntary pact.
It is an agreement that offers support for companies to collaborate on “new ways of working and building better supply relationships”.
The Australian-grown Horticulture Sustainability Framework details 17 focus areas of priority.
While sustainability is at its core, the framework also acknowledges that the horticulture sector has a key role to play in helping agriculture become a A$100bn industry by 2030.
But as the framework’s authors also acknowledge, the mission will not come without investment and a commitment to research and innovation that “improves practices and drives transformational change”.
Sustainability Victoria’s Path to Half report, released last year, with the same mission to halve food waste by 2030, digs a little deeper on the impact supply chain improvements will make on the overall campaign.
“Good temperature control keeps food fresh as it travels along the supply chain. This reduces food waste and saves distributors, retailers, and customers A$179m a year,” the document says.
I suspect these numbers are much lower than what can potentially be saved, given real-time supply chain monitoring with smart technology is still in its infancy.
The paucity of supply chain modernisation was highlighted in the final report of last year’s National Food Waste Strategy Feasibility Study as a crucial gap in need of attention.
“There appears to be comparatively low levels of cold storage capacity per capita in Australia – especially considering the country’s climate and size,” the study concluded.
“This has a significant impact on shelf life and quality of products, post farm-gate. This suggests a greater focus on cold chain innovation and investment could be a theme to explore.”
How to win
So, what does this have to do with you if you are in the business of supplying fresh produce?
Firstly, food waste is a clear symptom of an inefficient supply chain. Even if the environmental imperatives or the politics of climate change do not motivate you, the fact that supply chain waste is equal to financial haemorrhaging should impel you to act.
Secondly, there is often a direct correlation between food quality and food waste. If you focus on improving your quality, some of your food waste issues should automatically correct.
Thirdly, waste means inefficiency. Waste and inefficiency reflect in the product. You will have to address waste, either directly or indirectly.
The expectation will not just come from regulators, either. Customers will also look favourably on food companies who demonstrate their food waste fighting efforts as part of their brand story or value proposition.
Investors are also likely to use the same lens when deciding who is worthy or safe to furnish with capital.
But I make the point again, none of this is possible without scrutiny of your supply chain and what impact it is having on your food.
As we say in the data business, the numbers never lie. Accessing your supply chain data is your quickest way towards getting your food business on track and in shape for the crucial ‘sustainability-sensitive’ years ahead.