Less Food Waste From Farm to Fork

By Feng Hu 13 August, 2015

Future food demand is high. China wants to save grain losses from farm to fork. But are we ready for real change?

Global annual food waste at 1.6 bn tonnes; regional differences show infrastructure is key in developing world
Industry commits to halve food waste by 2025 whilst China to cut 13 mn tonnes grain loss p.a. =10 bn cum water
China's current logistics & storage constraints provide new opportunities; real actions in food revolution await to see

Photos of US Pavilion and Belgium Pavilion at Milan Expo

The world is talking about a food revolution. I was at the Milan Expo in May. This year’s theme is ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. Participating countries were trying to demonstrate different visions of future food production and showcase sustainable solutions to meet the world’s increasing demand for food and energy.
The challenge is tough with the global population expected to top nine billion by 2050. This means two billion more mouths to feed. Many say that more food needs to be produced. As estimated by the FAO, under a business-as-usual scenario, the world needs to produce 60 % more food by 2050.

BAU demands 60% more food by 2050; new models needed

However, the current model is already putting great pressure on the environment: agriculture accounts for 70 % of global freshwater withdrawals; let alone land use and other resources inputs such as energy, fertilizers and pesticides.

Imagine if the world has to produce 60% more food. Continuation of the current norm is certainly not going to be sustainable. New solutions are needed to double the supply without adding more pressure on the environment while keeping climate change in check.

Eat more bugs and organs?

Some propose new food sources for human consumption. The National Geographic is exploring ‘Future of Food’ with its eight-month special series and asking: “Should we eat more bugs?” The Economist even challenged its readers with insect-laced ice cream.

Changing diet is possible – China is encouraging its people to eat more grain & less meat

Past experiences show that people could be convinced to include “untraditional” food sources into their diet under particular historical events – just like how Americans started to eat organs during 1940s as a patriotic act to ensure meat supply for their troops fighting overseas. Since 2015, Chinese government introduced potatoes as the country’s fourth staple crop after rice, wheat and corn. It is also encouraging people to change to a diet with more grain and less meat.
But, we have to admit that food is such an important element in many cultures. It may be easy for some Chinese to adopt a potato-based diet, but it can be quite challenging for some to accept unconventional meat like Icelandic “Hrútspungur”. To find 60% more food sources, we look beyond bugs and organs.

Farm to fork: food losses & waste vary greatly across regions

Actually, one often overlooked low-hanging fruit is food wasted along the way from farm production to our table. The global annual food waste is around 1.6 billion tonnes (of “primary product equivalents“). This could help feed some 795 million people who are still undernourished around the world. The direct economic cost of this is about USD750 billion (excluding fish and seafood) every year. So, aside from increasing productivity and hunting for new food sources, we should start to seriously think about how to reduce our food waste ‘from farm to fork’.
A FAO study showed that food losses and waste generated by every person each year varies greatly across different regions, from the lowest in the South & Southeast Asia at up to 140 kg/pax/year to the highest in the North America & Oceania at up to 310 kg/pax/year (see chart below). In fact, the North America & Oceania is more than twice as wasteful as the South & Southeast Asia.

Global annual food losses and waste are ~1.6 billion tonnes
Per capita value varies across regions – North America & Oceania is over 2x that of South & Southeast Asia

Per Capita Food Losses & Waste - Production vs Household

We can see from the above chart that, in more industrialized regions, consumer behavior (including diet, food quality expectation and attitude to food waste) contributes more to food waste at the table. The share of food losses and waste during the production to retailing is relatively higher in the South & Southeast Asia where it is up to 94%. Indeed, in developing countries, most of the food is wasted during logistics, trade and processing. In addition, economics (margins and transport costs) also matter.

Industry actions needed as consumers are slow to change

Nevertheless, despite better infrastructure in developed countries, the overall food losses and waste are still great across all regions. And since consumer behavior is slow to change, surely actions need to come from the industry itself.

Industry commitment to reduce food waste

In June 2015, the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), an industry consortium, passed the “Food Waste Resolution” and committed to halve food waste within the operations of its 400 retailer and manufacturers members by 2025. These include big retailers such as WAL-MART (US), METRO (Germany), China Resources Retail Group (China) and Dairy Farm (Hong Kong).

400 retailers to halve food waste by 2025

Two approaches will be taken: 1) to prevent food loss and waste and redistribute to people in need; and 2) to recycle inedible food for animal feed, industrial application, soil enrichment and energy generation.
In addition to industry commitment, in countries like China with large population and agriculture & food production, policies are also being set to address the food losses & waste issue. President Xi mounted a “Clean Your Plate” campaign in 2013. Recently, the NDRC, State Grain Administration and the MoF also jointed released the ‘Grain Storage and Supply Security Plan (2015-2020)’ to reduce grain loss. These are necessary as China faces more and more challenges to meet rising demand for food, water and energy.

Saving grain loss can save more water than irrigation savings

In 2014, 165 million tonnes of grain or 27 % of China’s total grain output was transported across provinces. Due to mismanagement and backward infrastructure, a significant amount of grain losses are incurred during long-distance transportation, processing and storage: over 35 million tonnes annually. It means that 1 in 5 tonnes of grain transported inter-provincially didn’t reach the end market.

CWR Infographic - 1 out of 5 grain loss in transportation

China’s plan to reduce 13 mn tonnes of grain losses = 10 bn m3 water saving > half of a mega water diversion project

China wants to save 13 million tonnes or a third of grain losses every year by 2020. The plan also says that such savings equal to saving 10 billion m3 of water. To give you an idea: the completed Eastern and Middle Routes of the South-North Water Diversion Project can currently transfer on average 18.3 billion m3 of water every year. So the water savings from reducing grain loss is more than half of the current annual water diversion.
Moreover, such water saving is significant compared to irrigation water saving. As we talked about before, water savings from meeting government targets on irrigation efficiency proved to be small. Bigger improvements can be limited by small average farm plot sizes and difficulty in accessing finance. The increasing occurrence of droughts also hampers irrigation savings.
In addition to water savings, by reducing 13 million tonnes of grain losses every year, China could also save 4.68 million tonnes of standard coal equivalent of energy and an annual cut of 12.2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. It is clear why the government wants more efforts in upgrading infrastructure of logistics and storage and improving management system.

CWR Infographic - Save Grain Losses Save Water

Room to improve: around 40% grain transport was via railways & half of grain output is stored by farmers with poor infrastructure

However, there are challenges: Only around 40% of China’s internal grain flow was transported via railways 1, with the rest via smaller means such as trucks and ships. About half of China’s grain output is stored by the farmers with poor storage conditions and infrastructure. There are significant opportunities for relevant industries like logistics and storage to grow. Indeed, advance rail transportation equipment and agriculture machinery are both in the “Made in China 2025” list. This trend is inevitable, as China has no choice but to transform its economy to be circular and more sustainable, given its resources constraints.

Are we really ready for a food revolution?

But, are we really ready for a food revolution? I cannot help but think about my experience at the Milan Expo: many country pavilions provided their local delicacies for visitors, but most of the drinks and food were served in disposable packaging. Within a short period of time, I ended up with all sorts of aluminium foil plates, plastics folks, cups & strolls.

Aside from food waste, food packaging waste is another issue to be tackled

What was worse is that the trash bins put plastic and metals together (see images below). Food as we consume today often comes with packaging – sometimes simply too much. We should also think about reducing these wastes as packaging requires lots of energy and resource inputs to produce and recycle. At an Expo about ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’, packaging could be better dealt with. Our future sustainable food culture certainly shouldn’t be like this!

Aluminium foil plates plastics folks cups strolls left after the meal at the Ecuador Pavilion

Real actions needed for a hungry & thirsty future

There appears to be a long way from commitments to action. But I believe changes will come as countries like China start to seriously tackle these issues. We, consumers, should also start thinking about how to reduce waste at our table. In a hungry and thirsty future, every grain counts.

1. According to NBSC, in 2013, about 104.5 million tonnes of grains were transported by railways.

Further readings

  • Hong Kong’s Thirst for Bottled Water – Hong Kong has a plastic waste issue & consuming less bottled water can help this. Why then is Hong Kong still thirsty for bottled water? Mandy Lao explores consumer attitudes towards these

Agriculture & water

  • Water Ten To Revamp Chinese Agriculture – Takeaways from Shanghai’s Global Agriculture Sustainability Forum are reviewed in relation to the new Water Ten Plan. Fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation & product tractability markets look set to change. China Water Risk’s Hu on what the new plan means for the future of Chinese agriculture
  • Balancing Water For Agri & Coal – China’s coal mines lie next to its farmlands and it plans to save water used in agriculture to fuel coal growth. In “Towards a Water & Energy Secure China”, China Water Risk explores strategies to control water use between agriculture & coal to ensure both food & energy security
  • China: Gaps in Rainy Day Funding – Given increasing economic losses & negative impacts on food production due to extreme weather, China Water Risk’s Hu highlights gaps in flood control investment and expands on how the Chinese government expects to finance rainy days ahead
  • The State of China’s Agriculture – China’s limited water and arable land plus rampant pollution raises concerns over food safety & food security. Get the latest update on agriculture & water and see why these policies matter
  • Water Pollution May Lead to More Trade – Upon publishing “No Water, No Food: ensuring food safety & food security in China”, HSBC’s Wai-Shin Chan tells us why China’s war on pollution & the need for self-sufficiency may result in more agri trade
  • Heavy Metals & Agriculture – Check out China Water Risk’s overview of the status of heavy metals discharge into wastewater, priority provinces, overlap with agriculture sown lands, crops exposed and industries targeted for clean-up
  • 8 Things You Should Know About Rice & Water – How much of water & farmlands are used to grow rice in China? What about exposure to Cadmium, Mercury, Lead & Arsenic? Can China ensure rice security? Here are 8 things you should know about rice & water in China

Key Water Policy

  • Made in China 2025: Are You On The List? – How does the new Made in China 2025 Action Plan fit with other ‘Future China’ plans? Are the ten industries in Made in China 2025 the same as the Circular Economy Ten? Find out why which list matters
  • China’s Economy: Linear to Circular – After Germany and Japan, China is the third country globally that has enacted polices to move towards a circular economy. China Water Risk’s Thieriot on how and why China needs to make this transition. Which industries are affected, what is the role of industrial parks?
  • Water Ten: Comply Or Else – China’s new Water Ten Plan sets tough action on pollution prevention & control. While this is good for the water sector, less obvious is who or which sectors will be impacted. China Water Risk’s Tan on why China is serious about its fast & furious pollution reforms to propel China to a new norm
  • Groundwater Under Pressure – New official survey says that China’s groundwater quality has yet again deteriorated. Can the ‘Water Ten Plan’ turn this around? Who will be affected? Hear from China Water Risk’s Hu on what’s at stake & why the next 5 years are crucial
  • 8 Game-Changing Policy Paths – There has been a fundamental shift in planning China’s future growth with changes in regulatory landscape due to multiple polices set & changes in law. Many come into full effect in 2015. Get on top of these
  • New Trading Markets to Enforce Red Lines – China has been experimenting with market mechanisms. Can China’s new water permit trading markets (discharge & use) help the nation hold its Three Red Lines on water use, efficiency & pollution as well as catalyze a bigger water market? Feng Hu expands
Feng Hu
Author: Feng Hu
Having previously led CWR’s work on water-nomics, Feng now sits on our advisory panel to help us push the conversation on integrating water considerations in planning sustainable transition and mobilising finance toward climate and water resilience. Feng currently works on ESG advisory at a regional financial institution. Prior to that, Feng worked as Sustainable Finance Research Manager APAC at V.E, part of Moody’s ESG Solutions. During his time at CWR, he initiated and led projects for CWR including the joint policy briefs with China’s Foreign Economic Cooperation Office of the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the water-nomics of the Yangtze River Economic Belt. Feng expanded the water-nomics conversation beyond China by co-authoring CWR’s seminal report “No Water No Growth – Does Asia Have Enough Water To Develop?”. He has given talks on water-nomics and other water issues at international conferences, academic symposiums, corporate trainings and investor forums. Previously, Feng also sat on the Technical Working Group of the Initiative for Climate Action Transparency (ICAT) and worked as a senior carbon auditor on various types of climate change mitigation projects across Asia and Africa. Feng holds two MSc degrees – one in Finance (Economic Policy) from SOAS University of London and the other in Sustainable Resource Management from Technical University of Munich – and a BSc degree in Environmental Science from Zhejiang University.
Read more from Feng Hu →