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Covid is call to act on Southeast Asia’s food waste crisis: Experts


Fruits and vegetables thrown into a waste bin

Peter Dazeley | The Image Bank | Getty Images

SINGAPORE — Covid-19 is a wake-up call that’s highlighted the urgency to fight the world’s food waste crisis, experts and industry players told CNBC.

Amid global lockdowns and halted travel, the pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities of supply networks, as disruptions created bottlenecks in farm labor, transport and logistics and sparked global food shortages and price hikes.

William Chen, the director of Nanyang Technological University’s Food Science and Technology Program in Singapore said that “the pandemic was a good wake up call.”

Covid-19 made it seem that people didn’t take climate change seriously before food was plentiful. “But now, this issue begins to surface in people’s minds,” he said. I don’t consider it a loss, but an opportunity to clean up the system.

The biggest challenge facing the world today is food waste.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that one third of all food produced — or 1.3 billion tonnes — ends up lost or wasted every year. Food waste also accounts for 8% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, another UN report showed.

Reducing food waste could yield $700 billion in savingsAccording to Boston Consulting Group, And businesses in Southeast Asia are jumping on the bandwagon and going into food waste prevention, as well as redistribution and recycling of excess food.

Growing appetite to tackle food waste

In 2020, Singapore generated 665,000 tonnes of food waste, making up about 11% of the total waste generated in Singapore 

Rayner Loi (co-founder and chief executive at Lumitics in Singapore) said that as a result of the pandemic more airlines and hotels are now taking food waste seriously and making sustainability a priority.

Loi stated that it marked a significant change in the way food waste was perceived a few years ago. It was not easy to talk with representatives from industry.

He said that increased education and new regulations from the government are key factors in this growing willingness to listen. Sustainability is also high up on their corporate agenda.

An artificial intelligence-powered tracker was developed by the firm and installed in dustbins. It can measure food waste and keep track of it. Chefs could reduce food waste by learning what was happening in real-time.

Lumitics discovered that this can reduce food waste up to 40% and increase food prices up to 8%.

From 2024 onwards, owners and occupiers of commercial and industrial premises in Singapore that generate large amounts of food will be required to segregate their food waste for treatment, according to a new legislation.

Lumitics partners large hotel chains like Accor, Hyatt, Marina Bay Sands, as well as carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Etihad Airways.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Lumitics plans to open 1,000 new locations within five years, starting in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Australia.

Loi stated that the industry has begun to realize food waste as a cost-saving opportunity.

Turning food waste into ‘surprise boxes’

We’ve spoken to many food business owners who believe they don’t waste much. When they start making quick calculations of what 6% to 14% of extra revenues mean, we usually get a call back.

Louis-Alban Batard-Dupre

founder, Yindii

Industry players themselves have highly underestimated the problem.

The majority of food companies we met don’t think much about waste. When they start making quick calculations of what 6% to 14% of extra revenues mean, we usually get a call back,” he said.

As more businesses prepare for sustainable post-Covid tourism, the minds of merchants are also changing, he stated.

Batard Dupre stated that back then they weren’t “shy to admit they produce food waste, because it would show their stores aren’t selling out everyday or because it is a dirty term.” But telling the world that your business is fighting for the planet’s health and well-being is far more powerful than hiding the systemic problems every business faces.

Watermelons discarded near the Brahmaputra river, Bangladesh

Andrea Pistolesi | Stone | Getty Images

To date, Yindii has seen over 20,000 surprise boxes bought up. He said that distributing food to those who would otherwise have had to throw it out helps people living below the poverty line.

Yindii partners hotels including Hilton Sukhumvit Bangkok Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit or JW Marriott. In the future, it will expand into other parts of Thailand and South East Asia.

Technology as a way forward

Technology is starting to play a bigger role in tackling food waste.

Southeast Asia has a lot of small-scale farms that depend on intensive livestock farming. They are also less able to afford more efficient agritech. Chen from NTU is also an advisor to the Asian Development Bank.

Also, the growing middle class consumes more.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to reduce food waste at both the consumer and retail levels by 2030 and decrease food loss along the production and supply chain, post harvest. 

The slower we are to take action on climate change, the more we will see extreme weather and the greater the likelihood of zoonotic diseases — that could consequently increase food waste.

Audrey Chia

associate professor, National University of Singapore Business School

More private-public partnerships will be key, where “enthusiastic small start-ups” can scale up with the help of technology and funding from the government, or work with big multinational corporations to plug the gaps, said Chen.

Upcycling, which is the process of taking materials that were discarded and making them marketable into high-quality products, is another lucrative business.

For instance, plant-based seafood firm Sophie’s Kitchen is using soybean residue okara as a culture medium for microalgae cultivation in the fast-growing alternative protein market space.

Other examples include adding higher valued ingredients like salted eggs to normally discarded fish skin or using black soldier flies to transform food waste into fertilizer, said associate professor Audrey Chia of the National University of Singapore Business School.

The predictive technology also could help retailers and restaurants estimate food demand.

The vicious cycle is absurd. The slower we are to take action on climate change, the more we will see extreme weather and the greater the likelihood of zoonotic diseases — that could consequently increase food waste,” said Chia.