Oct. 13, 2011 We throw out a quarter of the food we buy. New attitudes and new technology could shrink the mountain of waste from our kitchens.
"Let me see, that comes to a total of just under 1200 kroner," says Børge Andre Roum.
The young man has just made a rough estimate of his personal consumption -- including food, for the past four weeks. It lies just over his monthly average spend because of a few train tickets and a donation of NOK 270 to a charity.
In spite of his remarkably low consumption, he lacks nothing. His cupboards are full of dry foods in unopened packages that other people have thrown out, while the freezer is full of more food he has found. He only goes shopping if he is really short of something.
The reason for all this is that four years ago, Børge made a personal choice; he became a freegan; someone who, for the sake of the environment, lives off what other people throw away. He finds food, well packaged -- in fact, usually in its original packaging -- in supermarket waste containers, or simply past their sell-by date on the shelves.
"I have always been environmentally involved and concerned about the north/south problem. It is a matter of fact that in the rich part of the world we are consuming resources at the expense of the poor."
Nowadays, nobody would dispute the fact that dumping perfectly edible food is unethical and anything but sustainable behaviour. But why do we throw away so much food? Are the grocery chains collaborating with the advertising industry to push us into overconsumption? Have we become uncritical food snobs? Or does food simply not have a long enough shelf life?
"The problem is a matter of attitudes, market mechanisms and purchasing power. In the western world, one factor is probably that we can afford to throw away food, but we also the throw it away because we believe that we have to because it doesn't keep well. But often it is perfectly OK."
These observations come from Jan Ola Strandhagen, a research scientist and logistics expert at SINTEF Technology and Society. He is one of many who wish to do something about the growing mountain of food waste from their kitchens. And he has good reason to do so: according to figures on the website of Tristam Stuart, a British scientist and author of "Waste," between 20 and 40 percent of all fruit and vegetables are thrown away before they even reach the food-store shelves -- largely because they do not meet the aesthetic criteria of the supermarkets. On top of that, we have the food wasted by customers and restaurants. Halving the amount of food wasted by consumers could lift hungry people out of the shroud of undernourishment," says the scientist.
"The good news is that a third of the world's supply of food could be saved before it goes into the waste bin. Much of it could be utilised with the aid of new technology and changes in attitude. We owe society that much," says Strandhagen.
Support for this claim comes from the political world; according to Norway's Ministry of Agriculture and Food, reducing food waste ought to be one of the most highly prioritised areas for conserving the environment in Norway and elsewhere in the world, for the petroleum-rich Norwegians are among the worst wasters of food. Last year, the Østfold Research Institute carried out a survey of 100 randomly selected households in Fredrikstad in collaboration with Mepex Consult. The survey looked at what sort of food they threw out and how it was packaged, and found that no less than 54 percent of it was edible. Fruit, vegetables, bakery products and meat were among the items most often discarded.
Best before it reaches the supermarket
The SINTEF scientists' contribution to the fight against food waste has nothing to do with our hopeless relationship with food: they wish to take up the struggle using weapons such as logistics, simulations, robotisation and new ways of thinking about food supplies.
The most important challenge is to ensure that food does not run out of shelf life while it is still in the warehouse or is being transported from A to B and on to C. The fresher food is when it arrives in the store, the greater is the likelihood that it will be sold and eaten before it reaches its sell-by date and ends up as waste. Every hour counts.
"The technology required to ensure optimal deliveries of food has already been developed, and is being used by several industries. What is new is that it now costs so little to adopt that it will hardly affect prices in food-stores," says Strandhagen.
More advanced production systems can also help to reduce the food waste mountain: robots that can pack foodstuffs in different package sizes in the same production line are another of the solutions suggested by the scientists. Until recently this has been an expensive process, but now these robots are controlled by software that is no dearer than what we can find in a smartphone.
"Families may consist of anything from one person and a cat to immigrant families with two generations living under one roof, so it is only reasonable that food should be packaged in different sizes according to need and demand."
But if we are to exploit this technology, we need to have more information regarding what consumers wish and what they actually buy in larger quantities.
"If the food retail sector would share its knowledge of consumers' buying patterns, and just as importantly, how much ends up in its own waste bins, it would be possible to produce food with surgical precision," says Strandhagen. "Last but not least, such information would also influence the logistics that decide when and where, and in what quantities, individual products are delivered to retail outlets."
Today, however, it is transport economics rather than demand that controls food distribution. The trailers are filled as full as possible and deliver their loads to whoever is on the list of recipients, irrespective of what they actually need. In the eyes of the scientists, the flow of information between the individual links in the "food chain" is far from ideal.
Sales campaigns create disequilibrium
Not far from the centre of Trondheim, SINTEF and NTNU scientist Heidi Dreyer of SINTEF Technology and Society is bent over the government's report on power in the Norwegian food industry. This is one of her subjects of research, and she is in no doubt about the situation: for market reasons, the major food-store chains are not keen to share information about what they sell and the quantities of wares that they have in store. For sharing such information might enable their competitors to steal the share of the market that they would prefer to keep for themselves. As we all know, it is easy to lure people into the shops with "great offers," family-size packs and "take three -- pay for two" campaigns.
"Sales campaigns can be good for highly aware shoppers who buy items on offer and put the food in the freezer. But we know that when a supermarket runs a campaign for a particular type of cheese, less is sold of other types, and there is a greater chance that these will pass their sell-by date without be sold. In any case, many people are tempted to buy in large amounts, which in turn makes it more likely that the food will not actually be eaten," explains Dreyer.
While supermarket chains keep their campaign offers secret as long as they can, it will be difficult to adapt deliveries to the ideal. But wholesalers are also involved in the game. They are reluctant to share their knowledge of what is actually being bought with their food producers who supply them. The reason for this is that the wholesalers want to keep their purchasing prices as low as possible. Meanwhile the suppliers are producing food in large volumes instead of producing the amounts that consumers actually want, in order to utilise their production machinery at maximum efficiency. However, the result is that the shops are sent too much produce, and they in turn generate unnecessary food waste.
Little chip with great potential
However, a technology does exist that is capable of revealing our shopping habits down to the last detail and thereby help to reduce the excess volume of goods in shops. The technology is known as RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification Device, and it is ideal as a means of breaking the ground for a flow of goods that is so organic that it might have been created by nature itself. Today, it is being used for everything from keycards to tollway access chips. If RFID is adopted by the food distribution industry, it could help to bring about more environmentally friendly food consumption habits.
Dreyer explains the technology by comparing it with barcodes. RFID goes a little bit further -- the barcode is replaced by a readable numerical code which is loaded into a radio chip. The code can be made as long as we wish, which means that it can contain as much information as we need. Any code reader within range that is capable of receiving or reading the signal will register the chip's unique ID. Furthermore, it can be located inside a product so that it is invisible. In this way, the tiny chip can reveal a consumer's shopping habits, give us a complete overview of where each individual package is in the food distribution chain, and how long it has been lying in the warehouse or the cold counter.
"RFID technology lets us know exactly what is being produced, sold and even eaten. This in turn enables us to tailor production, packaging, distribution and warehousing so that less is wasted. We can have a complete overview of the distribution line, so that the shelf life of a foodstuff is not "used up" while it is still in storage or being transported," says Heidi Dreyer, as she sketches a simple example:
"It is also possible to combine the use of GPS and RFID in such a way that we can monitor the flow of goods in real time. This would give us both fresher food and less waste; a win-win situation."
All the same, these are solutions for the future, and they would require a return system for the RFID chips and a readiness to change among wholesalers and retailers. But what about us, the consumers? Have we become uncritical food snobs with enormous stomachs? What should we be doing to reduce our food waste?
Young Børge Andre Roum is in no doubt about his own choice:
"When I found out how much food is actually thrown away -- perfectly usable food -- becoming a freegan was an obvious choice. We have already used both resources and energy for production and transport; putting even more energy into destroying food makes environmental problems even worse," he says.
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