The United Nations estimates that, by 2050, the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion of people and to feed them requires a 70% increase in food production.
Reducing food waste can feed the world and relieve some of the stresses food production puts on the environment. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that about 40% of food produced in the U.S. is wasted every year. Although donations and composting are great initiatives, the food industry needs to focus on reducing waste at its source. Like in every industry, consumer preferences and purchasing decisions dictate prices and product specifications. Therefore, individuals with the buying power are the ones capable of changing the industry by demanding more responsible products and processes. Responsible purchasing should be the main focus of food companies and consumers. Indeed, better procurement decisions at the retail, foodservice and consumer levels resonate all the way back in the food supply chain.
In the U.S., according to ReFED, about 40% of food waste happens at the food service and retail level. As consumer facing environments, restaurants and retails sometimes would rather overproduce and waste than run out of food. To tackle this waste, many organizations implement sustainability programs. Although, these programs usually focus on donation and composting, not on sourcing. Sustainability strategies are not typically linked to procurement strategies, when they should be. Indeed, procurement departments have the power to bring sustainability to the food industry by sourcing responsibly grown produce, minimizing packaging, supporting responsible suppliers, and making decisions based on data analysis to minimize waste. Small, incremental changes lead to large disruptions.
Vet responsible suppliers: The first way procurement teams can impact food waste reduction is by vetting responsible suppliers. By responsible, I mean suppliers that conduct their business taking into account social and environmental impact, as well as their stakeholders. To do so, procurement teams should define sustainability related purchasing standards. Such standards should cover every step of the supplier’s supply chain: ingredients traceability, relationships with suppliers, distribution methods, natural resource consumption, packaging choices, and waste management. Vetting suppliers based on sustainability standards can directly impact food waste along the supply chain. Indeed, a responsible supplier is expected to be aware of its waste generation and to try to minimize it. In addition, a responsible supplier should be working with other suppliers with similar practices, helping improve practices across the industry.
Partner with local suppliers: Partnering with local suppliers is also a way of conducting sustainable procurement. It promotes local development and reduces products’ carbon footprint resulting from transportation.
Purchase responsible products: Although buying responsible products usually goes together with vetting responsible suppliers, a focus on the products is a different strategy. In this case, procurement teams try to find products that are by themselves more responsible than similar ones. A product’s responsibility can be linked to its ingredients, source, production methods or even its packaging. For example, procurement teams can focus on finding innovative products, made from food byproduct. Today, many companies are using byproduct from food processing to create innovative products and help reduce the environmental impact of food waste. Among these companies: Renewal Mill, ReGrained, Misfit Juicery, Toast Ale, Coffee Flour and Barnana. You can find more innovators on ReFED’s database.
Measurement and data analysis: Measurements and analytics of purchasing history and usage are necessary to optimize decisions and minimize waste. Procurement teams should analyze purchasing history in terms of volumes and money spends. Actual usage of products and waste generation should be measured to assess users’ preferences, mitigate waste and overproduction. To measure waste, food companies can use waste tracking systems such as LeanPath. Using a scale and a camera, employees are able to weigh food waste, record where it came from and why it was thrown away. Data is recorded and transmitted to the online reporting dashboard. Getting such data is crucial to make responsible procurement decisions based on usage and waste. In addition, gathering data is the first step to developing algorithms able to generate predicted ordering guide using Artificial Intelligence. These ordering guides could be based on criteria such as purchasing history, actual usage, waste tracking, seasonality, distance from suppliers, weather, or even foodborne illnesses outbreaks. Such technology could help procurement teams and chefs make more accurate decisions and waste less.
Educate: Finally, education is key. Procurement teams, chefs, and consumers should be aware of the impact of the food they buy. Procurement teams should be conscious of sustainability issues linked to the product they purchase. Chefs should be trained to raise awareness among their staff on food waste reduction methods. Finally, consumers need to understand where their food comes from.
These methods are effective ways procurement teams can reduce food waste. However, procurement managers can’t always choose the more responsible option even if they want to. They have to take into account factors such as volumes, price, logistics, and food safety. To overcome these obstacles, and help procurement teams in their fight against food waste, two aspects of our current food system need to evolve.
First, we need to bring more digitization into our processes. Data measurements and analysis should be the number one focus of food companies. Too many processes are still done manually, and aren’t based on concrete data. Procurement teams will make more informed and optimal choices if their decisions are based on data such as usage, waste tracking or consumers’ preferences. In addition, gathering such data is the first step to developing innovative tools using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning supporting procurement decisions.
Second, we need to educate stakeholders. We need to teach industry leaders about sustainability issues resulting from the production of food. Explaining the why behind sustainability initiatives is crucial. Finally, we need to educate consumers. Nowadays, most people don’t have any idea of where their food comes from, nor the externalities associated with getting this food to their plate.
Improving data capture and stakeholders’ knowledge of our current food system will help individuals make better purchasing decisions, preventing food waste from occurring in the first place. It’s time we cut the food waste problem at its roots!
Anne Poirot_ Expert in the field of food innovation and waste management.
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