CEO Insight: Digital tools are coming for food waste and climate change

written by Michael Pooley, 7th December 2023, in CEO Insights

Reducing food waste is a good place to start if we are serious about tackling climate change and food insecurity. My thoughts on smart, innovative digital tools that have an impact on both.

Digital tools are coming for food waste and climate change

Reducing food waste with digital tools

Why prioritize reducing food waste?

There are only seven more annual harvests left – six in some areas of the globe – for us to reach the Paris Agreement goals. That would be seven harvests at most to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, which requires us to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030.

When I hear harvest, global warming and GHG mentioned so closely together, I immediately think of the carbon-busting potential of reducing food waste. By reducing food waste, we conserve and make better use of our precious resources – water, soil, energy. We ensure that our natural resources are used more efficiently and help combat food insecurity in the process.

Given the potential savings, it’s surprising that the spotlight is not shining more brightly on this topic. Currently, of the 193 countries that have submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – the proposed actions to reduce national emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement — only 21 countries have included commitments to reduce food loss and/or food waste, leaving 89% of countries that have submitted no commitments at all within their NDCs.

As the sense of urgency over the threat of climate change continues to grow, I’m honestly frustrated that we continue to waste this opportunity to reduce the world’s carbon footprint, save resources and feed more people.

How does food waste contribute to climate change?

As multiple studies consistently show, food loss and food waste contribute an estimated 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions to our global carbon footprint. These staggering emissions are largely associated with food production, which uses a huge amount of land, water and energy. Valuable resources are wasted in the production, harvesting, transporting and processing of food that will never be eaten.

Dealing with food waste only further increases the carbon footprint of our global food supply. Food waste that is sent to landfill emits methane. And what’s the deal with methane gas? Methane ranks as the second-largest single contributor to climate change, after carbon dioxide (CO2).

While CO2 accounts for an estimated 76 percent of all human-made greenhouse gases, there’s a potency problem with methane. There’s less methane in GHG emissions – around 16 percent – but this gas traps more heat in the atmosphere per molecule than CO2. (How much more is hotly debated.) So, it’s still a huge problem.

Fortunately, methane has a shorter lifespan than carbon dioxide, approximately 12-20 years compared to up to a thousand. Consequently, given its higher potency and shorter lifespan, cutting methane emissions can be a fast way to tackle a major contributor to global warming.

As waste is the third most common man-made source of methane – coming after the energy sector and agriculture – if we cut waste, we cut methane, and we can have a near-term positive impact on climate change.

So where do you start to cut food waste?

Reducing food waste cuts GHG emissions across the supply chain

reducing food waste

According to the most recent Food Waste Index Report, published in 2021 by the United Nation Environment Programme, about 8 percent of all food produced in the world is lost on the farm, 14 percent is lost between the farm gate and the retail sector, and 17 percent is wasted at the retailer, food service, and household stages of the food supply chain, adding up to over 931 million tons of food waste each year.

It makes perfect sense therefore to look for solutions across all three stages of the global fresh grocery supply chain, but to focus primarily on the final, most wasteful stages, namely after the food leaves the farm. How can we solve the food waste problem?

The growing strain on our global food system calls for strategic solutions. I firmly believe that we already have some incredibly powerful digital tools at our disposal to reduce food waste. It’s in our hands to improve harvests and protect fresh products along the supply chain to ensure they arrive in better condition at the retailers with a longer shelf life for consumers.

Which digital tools reduce waste in farming?

As a profession, farming is one of the first to be hit by climate change. Which is why climate-smart and data-driven farming is on the increase. Growers are increasingly using technology – including AI-enhanced digital tools – to manage the factors that can lead to loss of crop or surplus crop. With the right toolkit and knowledge, producers are decreasing the farming production footprint. They are making less of an environmental impact, producing more, but wasting less.

ifco icon supplychain

Precision agriculture

There are many advances in farming that enable data-driven decision-making to improve resource efficiency. Far too many to list here. But there is one company that is consistently at the forefront of the digital transformation of farming, namely Deere & Company (John Deere). John Deere is a renowned agricultural machinery manufacturer that provides advanced technologies to help farmers optimize productivity and reduce food waste. The automated guidance systems and yield mapping tools are fascinating.

Carbon capture in agriculture

Carbon capture in agriculture

This is perhaps one of the more controversial tools out there: gene-editing technologies. CRISPR is widely acknowledged as a game changer in medicine. So much so that two scientists, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2020 for their groundbreaking work. Simply put, CRISPR is a pair of molecular scissors that can precisely edit a DNA sequence. Although gene-editing requires careful regulation and oversight, it has the potential to help future-proof the world’s food supply and reduce food waste.

By creating crops that are disease and drought-resistant, for instance. One intriguing project recently caught my attention. At the University of California in Berkeley, researchers are using CRISPR to create crops that better capture carbon from the air and store it in the soil. The goal is for agriculture to sequester billions of tons of carbon each year.

What do digital tools bring to the supply chain?

Today’s fresh grocery supply chains are incredibly complex. To make a start with tackling food waste, you need to know where the produce is. Only then can you get it to where it needs to be at the right time. You need better visibility. The latest IoT tracking technology and advanced cloud-based data analytics are easy to implement and bring rapid results to supply chain visibility. When growers and retailers have end-to-end trackability and traceability of fresh products, they invariably see improvements in logistics, procurement and quality control.

rpc traceability

Supply chain visibility

With modern digital trackers and advanced data analytics, we are already able to identify hidden opportunities and important measures to accelerate the sustainable transformation of the fresh grocery supply chain. When we monitor fresh products along the entire value chain, from producer through manufacturing, distribution and right into the retail stores, we gain invaluable insights for growers, retailers and logistics operators.

This has the potential to uncover inefficiencies that lead to food being wasted or spoiled. In my experience, more visibility highlights practices that slow down the flow of goods and increase food loss and waste. Digital tools reveal issues that our partners didn’t even know existed.

IFCO ideal for cold storage

Cold-chain monitoring

Cold-chain management and monitoring are essential components of the global fresh grocery supply chain. Today’s digital tools sense and analyze the humidity levels of fresh products in real-time, throughout the supply chain. The advances we’ve made in cold-chain monitoring allow producers and retailers to track variables in temperature that adversely affect food quality and shelf life.

Such insights help our customers maintain cold-chain integrity from supplier through to point of sale. As well as helping reduce food waste, our insights have identified the root causes of fluctuations in temperature, which resulted in energy-saving measures with rapid results.

What do we do with the unavoidable, edible food waste?

No matter how good we get at cutting food waste, it’s impossible to prevent food waste entirely. First of all, any surplus good food – at farms or retailers – should be efficiently and speedily redistributed to vulnerable people in need. I doubt if there is a farm, retailer or consumer who doesn’t have access to a local food bank that can safely distribute surplus food efficiently to wherever it is needed most.

Personally, we’re seeing more producers and retailers working directly with food banks around the world. In some ways, stricter regulation on dealing with surplus food has increased collaborations with food banks, but so too has the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. In the UK, for instance, we have long-term partnerships with leading food redistribution charities, who use our digital tool MyIFCO to improve efficiency.

Felix UK food redistribution charities

What do we do with inedible food waste?

Not all inedible food waste is avoidable. It’s therefore imperative that our efforts to reduce food waste along the supply chain are supported by the resource-efficient recycling of whatever inedible waste remains. We could look to South Korea for inspiration.

Since 2005, there has been a strict ban on sending food waste to landfill in South Korea. In addition, the country has invested heavily in resource-recycling facilities and developing processes. As a result, as a recent independent study confirms, South Korea has reached a recycling rate of food waste of more than 90 percent. One contributing factor to the success of this initiative is a simple but effective digital tool. Radio frequency identification (RFID) chip readers and scales are fitted to communal bins, allowing the waste to be monitored, weighed and charged accordingly. The charges act as an incentive to cut waste.

Notably, the study indicates, the most efficient recycling of inedible food waste is to use it to produce energy, through anaerobic digestion in biogas facilities. These offer a highly efficient way to produce renewable energy from food waste and decarbonize the global fresh food supply chain.

Reducing food waste is good for people and the planet

As well as being far too close to the Paris Agreement deadline with unfinished work, we’re also living through a period of superlatives. Very few are positive. From the hottest month to the wettest week and the darkest days of geopolitical crises. All are putting our global food system under immense pressure.

Tackling these issues in one go simply feels too overwhelming. But prioritizing one overriding goal can take some of the pressure off our global food system. By reducing global food waste, we make our food system more resilient and set off a series of beneficial domino effects.

As the World Food Programme has repeatedly highlighted, the link between climate change and hunger emergencies is "chillingly clear", noting that climate extreme events in 2022 were the primary driver of acute food insecurity for 56.8 million people in 12 countries.

If we become bolder in our actions and incorporate more digital tools into the fresh grocery supply chain, I’m confident we have a better chance of meeting some of the most important deadlines in our history.

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