• Waste, Innovation, Business

Transforming to a circular economy requires communication among all players within the food value system

A large part of what Rosa Rolle, Ph.D. Senior Enterprise Development Officer, and her colleagues do at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) focuses on addressing food loss across the developing world. Rolle says the fundamental issue stems from the supply side of the value chain, where inefficient practices, result in high levels of food loss between harvests.

Food loss Rolle observes, is propelled by a limited knowledge base, poor infrastructure, restricted access to technologies, logistics issues, and resource scarcity.

“We have seen tomatoes arrive by truck to a wholesale market leaving a trail of red liquid as the fruits were packed in 50 kilo sacks on top of each other. In addition to the excess shrinkage of fresh produce due to faulty roads, a resulting 30 percent surcharge is often incurred to accommodate these costs,” states Rolle. “The aim is to find short- and long-term solutions that benefit all stakeholders along the supply chain.

Packaging as a tool to reduce food waste in SMEs supply chain

Packaging, therefore, becomes a cost-effective tool in reducing food loss and waste in terms of produce transportation, storage, and preservation, as well as generating benefits in nutrition, food security and better environments.

“In this case, the best option to reduce tomato loss was to apply plastic crates as a sustainable packaging option for the transportation of perishable goods,” Rolle continues. “Any solution must be the right combination of affordable, easily adaptable, scalable and sustainable. The plastic crates fit this bill in the best possible way, by protecting the produce from mechanical damage, with the added bonus of being reusable, unlike disposable plastic sacks which were usually meant for one-time use. This change has generated benefits across the supply chain and is now being widely adopted.”

Groundwork is essential in achieving effective cooperation

“When we talk about food systems, in the context of the FAO, our objective centers on overall development, rather than looking from an industry perspective,” maintains Rolle. “FAO’s goals are to raise nutrition levels and standards of living, to secure improvements in production efficiency and the distribution of food and agricultural products, and to ensure freedom from hunger for societies across the globe. Through the work that we do, we aim to deliver better production, improved nutrition, fortified environments and enriched lives for all.”

According to Rolle, accomplishing these objectives require a strong field work model, which is essential to the research, design, prototyping, and scaling of meaningful solutions for the communities who will benefit from it. An ambitious goal, considering the costs of operations combined with the cultural and economic barriers to achieve better results.

“FAO’s work at the field level involves engagement with governments and supply chain stakeholders and seeks to ensure that the solutions introduced produce measurable and beneficial results,” notes  Rolle. “Indeed, the best way to bridge the gap between how things are and how they should be, is by understanding the needs of producers and consumers and working with them in a participatory manner in achieving goals that deliver the common good.”

It is through this catalytic action, Rolle asserts, that real transformation can be achieved. 

Sustainable solutions require redesigning the whole system

“Creating a sustainable food system as part of a circular economy requires a holistic approach,” states Rolle. “We need to shift from traditional linear models of operation to more circular systems, where the vision is communicated in a way that not only includes people, planet, and profit, but also takes into consideration the limitations of each region as no one size fits all. One of the constraints of operating in the developing world is to reduce food losses in a cost-efficient manner, ensuring that food remains affordable and accessible to consumers.”

“Creating a sustainable food system as part of a circular economy requires a holistic approach.”

To commit to a circular model, Rolle suggests that adjustments need to be carried out across the food value chain with innovative business models and technologies that consider the SME perspective, as well as the use of sustainable packaging options.

“SMEs in developing countries have developed their unique business models and approaches to circularity. While net waste is minimal regarding how food is used, issues can arise from a lack of standardized operating procedures,” Rolle notes. “The goal is to ensure the availability of affordable and nutritious food, while conserving the natural resources and ecosystems on which our food value chains are based. To achieve this means reshaping current food systems toward generating economic, environmental, and social benefits.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss how fit for purpose packaging is essential for sustainable food systems. The articles are published ahead of our virtual roundtable.

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