Tomatoes rotting on vines because there is no one to pick them. Milk curdling in jars because there are no markets to bring it to. Fruits decaying on shelves because customers don’t have access to produce like before. Lost resources, wasted food. The restrictions in movement and quarantine measures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the levels of food loss and waste the world over.
As the pandemic continues to put people’s food security and nutrition at risk in many countries and hurt the livelihoods of small producers, we are called to re-evaluate our food systems.
One thing is clear: in this time of crisis, there is no room for food loss and waste!
Fortunately, new and innovative technology is being developed every day to improve the way our food is produced, distributed and consumed, transforming our food systems for the better. Here are just a few examples:
1) Apps to maximise the sale or donation of food
Smartphones are increasingly widespread, and apps are a simple and easy way to reach large portions of the global population. During the pandemic, the popularity of apps to solve food loss and waste has increased. Several countries also began to develop apps to facilitate the logistics, transport and e-commerce of perishable foods.
Too Good to Go is one app that gives shops and restaurants in many cities a platform to sell their surplus food at reduced prices at the end of the day. For example, in Rome, app users can find food offered at discounted prices by a neighbourhood market, a large supermarket chain and popular city eateries.
The Feeding India app, instead, focuses on donations of food for those in need. Restaurants and individuals can sign up on the app to donate food, which is then collected and distributed by this non-profit’s network of more than 4 500 volunteers. These regular feeding programmes run in more than 45 Indian cities and have served over 4.8 million meals so far.
In Kenya, the Twiga Foods platform connects 3 000 food outlets a day with fresh produce through a network of 17 000 farmers and 8 000 vendors, allowing restaurants to buy only what they need and farmers to deliver more efficiently. The company has reduced typical post-harvest losses in Kenya from 30 percent to 4 percent for produce brought to markets on the Twiga network.
2) New technology through 3D product design
FAO has worked on a number of innovative technologies to increase the efficiency of post-harvest handling and food processing. One of these new solutions harnesses 3D printing technology. FAO offers online, open-source 3D designs of innovative equipment (equipment that the Organization itself uses in country projects) for download and use.
One of FAO’s most popular downloads is a multipurpose wooden crate for the transport, handling, storage and retail display of produce, reducing the need for the produce to be transferred from one box to another. The innovative design uses basic wooden materials, but as a result much less food is ruined along the value chain. This design has had 13 000 downloads in under two years and is used widely in Sudan and Thailand.
3) Simple equipment in an innovative way
Being innovative is not all about new technology – it can also mean using simple techniques in a new way. Many FAO projects reduce food losses at the harvesting stage just by challenging traditional techniques and introducing new methods.
For example, in many Asian countries a large proportion of produce is lost during transportation. One FAO project in three South Asian countries found that post-harvest losses ranged between 20 and 50 percent for fruits and vegetables. Much of this is due to packaging that fails to protect the produce.
In Bangladesh, tomatoes are traditionally transported from farm to market in large mesh sacks. Many of the tomatoes are bruised or damaged when they arrive. An FAO project in the region proposed using large crates instead, which substantially reduced losses and allowed farmers to sell a larger proportion of their produce. FAO provided groups of smallholder farmers with crates to get them started and trained them on food-handling best practices, including in transport. The difference in the quality and shelf-life of the produce was so noticeable that in Sri Lanka, one supermarket now provides crates to farmers to guarantee the quality of their produce.
Simple but effective changes like this can dramatically improve handling in the supply chain and have a huge impact on the income and food security of local farmers. They also contribute to improving the quality and shelf life food for consumers.
During COVID-19, many perishable foods like fruits and vegetables went to waste as both farmers and consumers couldn’t access markets. ©FAO/Nozim Kalandarov
This 29 September 2020 will mark the first International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste, and FAO is calling on individuals, businesses and governments to act. This international day comes in the middle of a global pandemic, one which has served to highlight the fragility of our current food systems and the importance of access and availability to food.
For many people on the planet, food is a given. But for the millions of people who are chronically hungry, food is not a guarantee. Reducing loss and waste means respecting food and the natural resources, effort and investment that has gone into it. When we think about food’s backstory, it is easier to see what our food really represents and how precious it really is.