Why food waste is a systemic problem — and should be treated as such
This story is written by Kristoffer Torheim, COO at Dagens. He has worked for several years with food supply chain, systems, and supply chain visibility. This article is based on years of experience, hundreds of producer visits, articles, books and passionate discussions with chefs and other food players! A fun fact is that he also helped launch Too Good To Go in Tromsø back in 2016. Now he is, together with the amazing team Dagens, building the platform for the new food system — where food waste does not exist!
There has been an enormous focus on food waste in the last years — and rightly so. “1/3 of all food produced is wasted” is a quote commonly used. There are new articles, books, and journals released every day. Even companies get created and live entirely on the concept of food waste. So much energy and resources are poured into the concept of food waste — but what is the real root cause of food waste?
Having worked closely with farmers, professional buyers, and the food “system” over the last years, I’d argue that most of this energy and focus on food waste are only handling the symptoms of a broken system, rather than the root cause. So, what exactly is food waste, why and where does it really occur, and more importantly — how do we overcome the root cause, and not only treat the symptoms?
What is food waste?
FAO states that food waste “refers to the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food service providers and consumers.” (FAO) Simply put, it is food that is produced but never consumed, due to various reasons through a complex food system.
At Dagens, we collaborate closely with some of Norway and Denmark’s most dedicated farmers and producers — so we asked them about food waste.
For many the question itself is bizarre. The only cultivated food that is wasted is food that is “not edible”. As proud producers, they are not willing to sell this food, at least not in the current system, as it might make them look bad. For example carrots with wormholes, partial rot, or any other traits that make (parts of) the produce inedible itself. This led to the next question —
Why and where does food waste occur?
Before we go any further — let us quickly draw up the current food system for fresh produce (fruits & vegetables, roots & tubers, milk & eggs), as we have drawn it up together with our producer-partners at Dagens. Fresh produce accounts for more than 80% (approx.) of the documented waste (see figure 2).
As shown in figure 1 and 2, a large portion is wasted or lost in the initial stages of the food value chain: production and handling & storage.
Having discussed the topic of food waste with hundreds of farmers and producer-partners over the last years, the story they all tell is the same: the largest part (in volume) of food waste happens before it even reaches the retailers or end-consumers. This is also confirmed by this rapport from BCG in 2018. To make things worse, many of the farmers I’ve met argues that a significant volume is never reported by the grocers.
Looking at the total (first column), 1.210 million tons (!!) of food waste, a whopping 78% happens BEFORE it even reaches the consumer. Yet — I’d argue that the majority of the focus in the last years has been on ensuring that the end-consumer reduces their waste? Sure, everyone needs to do their part. And companies such as Too Good To Go, EatGrim, and Karma does a great job at raising awareness, and also removing part of the food waste. But, now it’s time that we actually solve this from a system point of view — and stop handling the symptoms of a broken food system! ✊
Why does food waste occur in such large volumes?
The shortest answer to ‘why there are such volumes of food waste’, is that a lot of produce does not “fit the system”. As shown in figure 1, a large part of the produce gets rejected early on. The wholesalers have large industrialized washing and packing facilities that require the produce to be a specific size and shape — and naturally, a large part of the produce is not the same size, shape, or color.
Every year we have several of our producer-partners giving us these insights. Last year, one of our largest producer-partners who grow organic carrots, had a contract with a large grocer who was supposed to buy the whole yield of 250 tons of carrots. A few weeks after delivering it all, he received a staggering 90 tons back. Why? “It was not fitting for the market. Too big, too small, not the right color, or not straight”. But, perfectly edible and nutritious. It is just that the “system” has defined a range for all types of produce that ‘we, the consumers, want’ (however, they did not ask me). In this case, it resulted in the farmer having 90 tons of perfectly edible and organic carrots, that he had to use for animal feed and plow back into the fields. Now, if you as a customer choose to buy this “food waste” — you are in practice supporting this broken system.
Shockingly, this story comes around again and again for producers who have worked “with the system”. They typically receive back 30–50% of the fruits and vegetables they are contractually obliged to deliver (and told to produce for that matter). To make things worse, in many cases producers are bound to an exclusivity clause in their contracts. This restricts the producers from selling to other channels. Consequently, perfectly edible food is used to feed livestock or plowed back into the soil.
Consumers and professional customers all love the idea of fighting food waste and buying second-grade produce. It is agreeably a very noble act to be a food saver. Yet, food waste is a symptom of a broken system. By buying second-grade produce or food waste, they are only supporting a system that is utterly broken. In the end, there shouldn’t really be first and second-grade produce at all, when it’s all edible and of good quality.
Then, you also have the issue of warehousing and expiration of produce — as grocers buy large quantities of the same produce, and push it out after it’s been bought (a supply driven set-up).
What can be done?
It is actually quite simple. Buy as much as possible directly from the producers. Avoid grocers and wholesalers. Following the FAO definition of food waste, the easiest way forward is to skip all the players between the producers and you — the customer. By making sure the farmers can sell the vast majority of their produce directly, you will contribute to building the new food system that we need. A local, direct, and transparent food system. By doing so, there will be less overproduction, less soil depletion, less industrial farming, a wider variety of crops, higher quality and more tasty produce. As a consequence, we will have more and happier farmers freed from the yoke of the current food system. Of course — the current food system is extremely complex and there are a lot of moving and interdependent variables. So, there will still be a need for multiple initiatives and players pushing different parts of the food value chain. However, for a large volume of the produce — buying direct solves a majority of the problems, I’d argue.
Furthermore, you as a consumer (private or professional), will get several other benefits:
- Fresher food (avoid days in transport and warehouses)
- Ensure that the money goes directly to the ones that really deserve it
- Get access to food that the food system cannot handle
- Customise specific type of produce (shapes and size)
- The excitement of buying seasonal food
At Dagens we have built tools to help producers and professional buyers buy direct. We are building technology that enables direct trade for producers, and facilitating a supply chain that is short, robust, and with zero food waste. We have to build a producer-first supply chain, as drawn up below. And at Dagens— we don’t talk about food waste — as we do not have food waste in our supply chain. In 2021 Dagens facilitated 120 tons of produce (all types of produce) across Norway and Denmark, from 123 producers, and to 248 professional buyers — with 0 food waste.
So, join the revolution — be a food rebel with us, and help build a transparent food system where food waste is no longer an issue!