Producing more food to keep pace with population growth is important, made obvious by the billions of dollars spent in research to find incremental gains. The problem is, the law of diminishing returns is always at play.
Take the supply chain, for instance. The gains made through genetics, land productivity, and farming practices often pale in comparison to the losses incurred during the production and distribution processes. In fact, total losses in combined foods and feeds can range between 30-40% of total production, whereas gains can be as small as the low single digits. The math simply doesn’t wash.
The focus on loss reduction creates a strategic imperative for companies involved in the supply chain. More and more companies see these reductions as an enabler to sustainability, which is being emphasized by their boards of directors.
Furthermore, farmers hate waste. Learning that upwards of 40% of their hard work is tossed aside as waste is demoralizing, especially because there are technologies that can help correct this issue and increase the monetary reward that farmers may reap due to the improved efficiencies driven by this food and feed waste reduction.
The advantages of prioritizing food waste reduction
Food waste reductions often fall into one of two categories, monetary or sustainability, though these aren’t mutually exclusive.
Monetary is the most obvious, as it involves reducing waste from farm to consumer. The less waste that occurs, the more revenue can be shared among those in the supply chain. With sustainability, the focus becomes more about the amount of water, fuel, fertilizer, and labor required to grow, process, and transport perishable goods — all of which go up as the population continues to increase.
Where the two factors collide is at the landfill. When you must dispose of large amounts of food and feed, it eventually creates higher levels of greenhouse gases. These gases bring about greater environmental impacts that work against the farming community. Spending limited resources to grow a product, only to have it tossed into the trash heap, is not sustainable or profitable. Nor is it reasonable.
The flaw in just producing more
Here’s the thing: Just producing more food — or focusing our efforts only on that — holds an inherent flaw. Food that never makes it to “final” market is simply waste, so the sole aim of increased production at the farm gate doesn’t do as much as it could. When you create more, you’re still dealing with inherent problems around storage, processing, retailer rejection, and other unavoidable issues. Ultimately, you’re still wasting a lot of food and feed. The United States already wastes about one pound of food per person per day, which is worth $161 billion per year. More production equals more waste if the root problems aren’t addressed.
Improving food safety and reducing waste, on the other hand, has the potential of providing the desired outcome. Even if you were to produce the same amount of food, more of the product would make it to market when you improve food safety and reduce the waste within the supply chain. Both are areas that bear higher levels of scrutiny.
Besides, economics tells us that after you reach an optimal level of capacity, adding another factor of production will only result in smaller increases in output. Spending money to go after extra yield prior to correcting problems around supply chain food waste is like putting the cart before the horse. As waste occurs in the supply chain, the total dollars allowed for distribution across supply chain members is lessened. Therefore, the likelihood that the farm community will receive less money for the time, effort, and expense of growing or rearing crops and animals continues to grow.
We’re learning that efficient farming practices are table stakes to staying in business, so why shouldn’t the total food chain be pushed to the same levels of efficiency? It is not always in the farmers’ control, but as news spreads about technology improvements, pushing for progress across the chain will be important. Whether it’s fresh fruit and vegetables, row crops, or animals for meat, the more waste that occurs, the less we’ll see in returns for farmers.
The problem of contamination
A big concern when it comes to food waste is contamination from a bevy of sources — animal, chemical, microbial, and others. These instances can occur at every stage of the food supply chain, from harvesting to storage to transport. Contaminated water sprayed on crops can affect fruits and vegetables before harvest. Germs from an animal’s hide can infiltrate the final meat product at the processing plant. Bacteria can grow on unrefrigerated food. It’s a delicate landscape littered with potential landmines.
Complicating matters further are mycotoxins, those poisonous contaminants produced during the growth or storage of everything from corn and wheat to rice and soybeans. While the total losses associated with mycotoxins aren’t yet known, one eight-year study found that 72% of about 17,300 feed samples contained such contaminants. Another study sets the number even higher, estimating it to be upwards of 79%.
It’s no wonder that we’re now seeing damage due to mycotoxins of up to $1 billion a year across the U.S. farming and livestock industry, as testing grains at various points along the supply chain does little more than determine elevated levels. Elevated levels, as you well know, mean the commodity must be offloaded.
Improved food production is not a misguided goal by any stretch of the imagination; it’s a worthwhile endeavor. It’s just that it’s not correcting a correctable problem. A multidisciplinary approach is a much better option. By focusing on loss reduction, you create a strategic imperative within the supply chain. Food waste and loss reduction is also an area, at least from a technology standpoint, that has gone unchanged for years — decades, in many cases. The food waste and food safety markets are ripe for disruption, and both need to evolve to provide long-term solutions to better feed the planet.
Improving efficiencies along the supply chain can help reduce food waste, which would increase not only the amount of food brought to market, but also the monetary return for those producing it. It’s just a matter of rethinking our approach to keeping pace with population growth: focusing not solely on food production, but also waste reduction.
By Larry Clarke
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