In late August I had the opportunity to attend the Crawford Fund Annual Food Security Conference focused on food waste and food loss along the supply chain in both developed and developing countries, supported through the Crawford Fund Scholarship. Titled “Waste not, want not: the circular economy to food security”, it was well attended by leading agriculture and food systems researchers, industry representatives and a group of 40 young scholars, which I had the privilege to be a part of.
FAO (2011) alarmingly reports that 1/3 of the food produced is lost or wasted every year. A distinction must be drawn between food losses, referring to those occurring in the production line, and food waste, associated with consumer behaviour. Food losses and food waste present an opposite distribution among developed and developed regions, as seen in the chart below (showcased by Dr Karen Brooks, and by Dr Brian Lipinksi separately). Developed nations concentrate food waste closer to the consumer side, while developing countries do so in the producer flank. Key drivers of this trend include food wasted at retail points and households –thus congesting spoilage“near the fork”in richer contexts, and post-harvest losses in the agriculture sector –thus concentrating food lost“near the farm” in less affluent environments.
Food lost or wasted by region and stage in value chain, 2009 (% of kcal lost and wasted)
Clearly, identifying strategies to support a reduction in these inefficiencies along the food supply chain are challenging and important matters, particularly since one in nine people in this planet are under-nourished. We are so used to hearing statistics that we might become unsensitised to them, but let’s reflect on this one for a minute. Almost 800 million people, today, do not have enough to eat on a daily basis, yet a third of the food we produce globally is wasted or lost.
This is part of what the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) has coined as the 3 food paradoxes, shown below, arguably the leading global issues affecting our broken food systems.
Yet, after some reflection the focus must be drawn to work out solutions and strategies to implement those at multiple levels of the value chain and across the globe. And that is what the Crawford Fund Conference provided, a plethora of arguments and case studies on how these issues should and could be addressed.These are selection of the key concepts portrayed by some of the presenters (kindly sourced from RAID’s blog):
- Reducing food waste and loss can decrease food prices, this benefits the consumer but may decrease farmer income.
- Interventions that can reduce food loss and waste include: sale or donation of unmarketable crops, improved policies and infrastructure, better market access, effective agricultural extension, improved harvesting and on-farm storage and better cold chains.
- A circular food economy allows resources to be recycled through the system. For example, biogas from fermented wastes can provide cooking gas and lighting for poor households, while capturing phosphorus from human excreta can provide fertiliser for crops.
- Clusters of volunteers who are linked to trained experts (e-mentors) can contribute to building capacity for farmers and extension, contributing to reduced food loss and waste.
- “Pull” mechanisms can provide incentives for private industry to invest where there’s market failure in addressing food loss and waste.
- Using consistent terms in measuring and describing food loss and waste is important. The “Food loss and waste protocol” has been developed to standardise quantification of food and inedible parts removed from the food chain.
- Digital technology can link farmers, extension officers and researchers and help both reduce and measure food loss and waste. For example, the Plantwise program is using digital technology to help farmers to manage crop health.
- Decreasing food loss and waste is only part of the solution, increasing food safety and improving food access through safety nets and feeding programs is also essential.
Finally, the event encouraged many opportunities for networking with conference attenders and presenters, as well as with the other peers being mentored during the three day Young Scholars programme. As many say among networking circles “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. Such words of wisdom encapsulated in this mantra. However, these jammed-packed days of learning, listening and connecting have fulfilled the “who you know” as much as they have nourished the “who knows you”.
A highlight of the whole experience has been to participate in a platform from which to get to know many senior academics, project managers, government and industry representatives, that now know me too. And I think that if ever anything related to gender and agriculture comes their way, they will remember my face (or maybe name?). So, I am pretty sure that attending this conference will have many spill over effects later on in time. And now, I can access a terrific network of leading men but more so women, who can not only provide advice on academic matters, but also on family planning combined with successful professional careers. Attending the conference was certainly a score!