circular food economy

There’s a big problem in the food industry that we don’t like to talk about. It’s a hidden problem with roots steeped in inefficiency and a desire for “aesthetics.” It’s an issue we never saw as an issue until we realized food scarcity is imminent and in fact, existing. It’s often unseen and unheard behind closed doors, yet it’s a massive issue. That issue? Food waste and loss.

Was your gut reaction “Eww!” or “Oh yeah. That problem…”? Whether you’re a food waste fighter or not, there’s no denying it: Food waste and loss is one of the biggest yet most underrated problems facing the food industry.

Every year, a third of food produced or 1.3 billion tonnes gets lost or wasted globally. According to the UN, the global cost of food wastage amounts to a shocking US$2.6 trillion a year.

That’s almost equivalent to India’s GDP. And if food waste were a country, it’d be the third largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting country after the US and China. Just let that sink in for a moment.

Source: World Resources Institute and UNEP

As if wasting food instead of feeding 690 million hungry people wasn’t bad enough, food waste and loss contribute significantly to global warming, specifically 8-10 per cent of global GHG emissions.

That’s four times as much GHG emissions as the entire aviation industry. This is because most food waste ends up in landfill, where it decomposes and releases methane, a GHG up to 30x more harmful than carbon dioxide.

With the increasing scarcity of key resources and limited opportunities for agricultural expansion especially in land-scarce countries such as Singapore and Japan, eradicating food waste and loss should be high on any food agenda.

A rising number of companies have looked to upcycling food waste and loss as a solution, using technology and food science to upcycle surplus and otherwise discarded food ingredients and turning it into delicious and nutritious products.

Also Read: In brief: An organic disinfectant from cashew waste; Orios Venture closes $30M Select Fund I

The case for upcycling

Upcycling is based on the philosophy of using all of what we already have and doing more with less. Most of all, upcycled food is about reducing food waste and loss by creating high-quality products using the resources that slip through the cracks of our food system.

Whether it’s turning brewer’s spent grain into crunchy snacks or turning surplus bread into beer, surplus ingredients or food byproducts are used and transformed into value-added products that nourish people and the planet.

Source: Regrained

A team of experts from Harvard Law School, Drexel University, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, ReFED, and others officially defined “upcycled food” in 2020: “Upcycled foods use ingredients that otherwise would not have gone to human consumption, are procured and produced using verifiable supply chains, and have a positive impact on the environment.”

Globally, we lose almost US$1 trillion in monetary or retail costs per year on food that is wasted or lost. Upcycled food captures that value, elevating it to create a sustainable and resilient food system.

Here’s the case for upcycled food:

  • Upcycling is a growing trend that gives consumers the power to make conscious choices – Upcycled food enables anyone to vote with their dollar and prevent food waste via the products they buy. And guess what? Consumers like you and I want to reduce our food waste! According to Mattson, 95 per cent of us want to do our part to reduce food waste, while 60% of us want to buy more upcycled products. In fact, both Food Network Magazine and Whole Foods Market have named upcycled food as a top food trend for 2021.
  • Upcycling tackles and prevents global warmingAccording to Project Drawdown, the global leader in ranking climate solutions, preventing food waste is one of the single most effective solutions to prevent global warming. By reducing and upcycling food waste, we can prevent food waste from ending up in landfill and contributing 8 per cent of global GHG emissions.
  • Upcycling optimises the energy efficiency of our food system, helping us feed the planet with minimal resources – Considering an increasing scarcity of resources, upcycled food can help to feed a growing population without putting extra pressure on the environment. Instead of food ending up in incinerators, as animal feed, or in landfill, upcycled food makes better use of the energy expended in growing, transporting, and preparing that food.

Source: The Upcycled Food Association

The popularity and increasing focus on upcycling as a trend and a need, has paved the way for a better and more optimal way of producing our food and beverages.

What it takes to move the upcycling needle

Now what will it take to move the upcycling needle? Three things:

Upcycling advocacy and education – Upcycling is still a relatively new term. While it is gaining traction in the U.S. and the U.K., here in Asia, most people have never heard of the term. If we can’t put a name to it, then how can we move the needle on it?

Also Read: Plant-based protein: Is it really meat?

That’s why the advocacy work that organisations such as the Upcycled Food Association or ReFED do, the upcycling initiatives driven by large companies such as Dole and AB InBev, and the exciting upcycled products being rolled out by companies like Renewal Mill and I Am Grounded are all so crucial to flying the upcycled flag high.

Change in consumers’ perceptions towards “food waste”- Many peoples’ initial reaction to upcycled food looks a little like this: “Ew! This was made with something that would’ve been thrown away?!”

Thus, we need to find innovative ways to make upcycled products more fun and approachable for consumers. At CRUST Group, our upcycled beers and pun-filled demeanor acts as a conversation starter to create a fun and alternative approach to reducing food waste & loss.

Political will and action towards better waste management and reduction practices – As with most fights to create behavioural change, impact at scale only truly happens when policies to incentivise desired behaviours or punish undesired ones are implemented.

To move the upcycling needle, we need policies and laws that incentivize and/or mandate businesses to better manage and reduce their food wastage.

A prime success story is South Korea, which has ramped up its food waste recycling rates from just two per cent in 1995 to 95 per cent in 2019, having implemented a compulsory food waste recycling program in 2013. A leader in tackling food waste in Asia, South Korea has also implemented other initiatives like tapping on smart bins to better manage food waste.

By crafting out waste-reduction programs and investing in technology and infrastructure, it was able to effectively and swiftly reduce food waste.

Even if it involves banning online binge-eating or “Mukbang” videos as China did, political will and action is needed to provide incentives for creating value-added products and reducing food waste.

Creating a truly circular food economy

There is nothing remotely efficient about 30-40 per cent of food being wasted or lost yearly– a great deal of it dumped when it’s still perfectly good to consume or loaded with nutrients. It’s about time we paid more attention to the food that is being lost and wasted throughout our global supply chain.

That means it’s about time we embraced innovative technologies and new production methods to reduce food waste and loss.

If we want a truly circular food economy that can sustainably feed the planet, then we need to turn to upcycling. The art of transforming food byproducts and surplus ingredients into a novel and nutritious products for human consumption, creating new sources of protein, nutrients, and fibre in the process—and keeping it all out of landfills.

Ultimately, we’ll need this new way of producing goods and other innovative ways of thinking to save the food the world needs and deserves.

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Image Credit: bialasiewicz

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