How big is our food waste problem? As consumers living in highly connected cities, our access to convenient and timely food products might mean that we overlook how much food is wasted before it even reaches our plates.
Globally, we waste up to a third of all the food that is grown, amounting to around 1.3 billion tonnes of food. This amount of food could feed entire cities that very same year! In Singapore, we wasted 700,000 tonnes of food in 2019 alone, which was perfectly good to eat.
How does all of this wastage happen, and how can we play our part in reducing this number to grow to feed more people who need it?
1. Food Waste At The Source
In the age-old industry of agriculture and farming, we have evolved from farming to sustain small communities to large, free market models of growing. As a result, our food production is just where a bulk of the food waste begins. Farmers can grow us great food with their years of experience, but most of this ability to grow must be accompanied with the right abilities to distribute that food. This is almost a basic lesson in demand and supply.
Without the right market data and tools to communicate with farmers, fresh foods also go to waste due to oversupply, without recourse to making it to somebody’s plate. Not only does it mean that farmers lose potential income- some farmers in rural or suburban areas might choose to throw away their produce and let it rot on the ground because the cost of harvesting that produce might be a lot higher if there are no paying customers. Furthermore, perishable food items like fresh vegetables, fruits, and other staples require proper storage conditions that demand space and costly electricity. As they are stored, crops also deteriorate in value, causing more waste.
2. Food Waste Along Supply Chains
Not only are international supply chains for food very complex, they are also wasteful on many levels. Up to 40-70% of fresh food in our supply chains can be damaged or wasted due to storage conditions and poor handling. Food might be passed from a farm to a wholesaler, sorting facility, distributor, packing facility, and then to a retailer. In this process, food products can be damaged due to the lack of cold chain infrastructure, stacking and packing force, and exposure to other elements. Adding to the problems, for every pound of food that moves, it is likely that up to a pound of plastic moves with it in order to protect it from rotting or being contaminated.
In a city like Singapore where we import more than 90% of our food and have consumers who are likely to expect their food to be in pristine condition, up to 50% of our food is also lost at the retail level. Slightly blemished products might be rejected by retailers and customers alike, and end up being thrown away because they have not been sold. There are various initiatives and businesses that have begun to rescue these food products - like Ugly Foods and Tree Dots - but there is a lot more to do to systematically reduce this waste. As consumers, we too are guilty of avoiding food products close to the date of expiry and pick out the best-looking items on the shelf.
3. Food Waste Generated by Consumers
Even after food makes it to the consumer’s basket upon checkout, food waste continues to be generated. How many times have you bought fresh produce and left them in your refrigerator only to think about them a few weeks later?
By then, it is likely that they no longer look very good and we reach for a handy app that could deliver what we needed in under an hour. Proper storage conditions and buying only what we need might be difficult to plan, but we can focus on making better choices to play our part in shaping this market.
The next obvious question might be: How do we fix these various problems of food waste, and to make better choices as consumers?
1. A Larger Focus on Eating What Grows Closest to Us
By eating as local as possible, we are able to reduce the amount of time our food spends along the supply chain and cut out middlemen. This not only reduces the amount of buffer produce that might be wasted, but also the emissions that are produced in getting our food to us. There are plenty of local options including Urban Tiller that deliver produce within hours directly from farms, and ensuring that the quality of food remains in its best form.
2. Find Ways to Preserve and Up-cycle Fresh Nutrients
It might be inevitable that we bought too much food to finish in a week. Instead of throwing it out, taking some time to engage your creative juices might help you upcycle some food! From turning old herbs into dried ones that are great for marinades and sauces to experimenting with your own kimchi and sauerkraut for leafy greens, to turning old fruit into marmalades and jams, there is plenty of fun to be had in working with foods that can still bring us nutrition.
3. Buy From Businesses that Are Demand-Driven and Add Value to Farmers
While we love choice and satisfying our cravings whenever we want, a huge part of food supply depends on open communication with our food producers. Seeking out ways to connect with the very people who grow our food will probably give them a much better idea of what customers are looking for, and match that demand better with awesome produce!
Businesses like Urban Tiller are focused on bringing the best produce from local urban farmers to customers directly, and also giving feedback to farmers about what customers want and in what quantities. With strong ties directly to producers, we canlower scenarios of oversupply and sustain our own local farmers better. Decentralizing food production and moving them closer to consumption centres will help with shortening our supply chains and bring us produce that is fresher, more nutritious, and have a much longer shelf life.
4. Try Growing Some of Your Own Food!
Last but not least, there’s plenty of satisfaction to be had in trying your own hand at growing food at home! Getting started on growing your own favourite greens means that you can plan your meals in advance and focus also on generating less waste. There are plenty of simple edible plants you can start with, and we can’t wait to have cities flourishing with food that feeds us and keeps us happy! With your own home garden, food scraps and other kitchen waste could also go into composting experiments that help us move toward even more sustainable homes & cities.
To sum it up - eat local and shop local, upcycle the food left in your fridge and grow your own greens - little steps we can all take to reduce the amount of food waste generated in the world today.
About the Writer:
Jolene is the Founder and CEO of Urban Tiller and is dedicated to its mission of reimaging what next-generation food supply chains can look like in cities. Jolene graduated from Yale-NUS College and United World College of the Adriatic, and entered the agrifood space after organizing the series of 30by30 In Our Next Generation hackathons.
Urban Tiller is Asia's first integrated farm-to-table AgTech start-up that delivers fresh produce within 8 hours of harvest. The business is committed to supporting sustainable agricultural methods and smallholder farmers, and giving consumers a truly safe and sustainable way to eat directly from the source.
Support your local farmers and enjoy some fresh produce by ordering from Urban Tiller here.