Recently we talked to Toby Myers, an expert at the intersection of food systems and sustainability. As a senior product manager, his insights carry a unique perspective regarding how to best tackle climate challenges and foster sustainable practices throughout food supply chains.
In this article, Myers demonstrates the importance of understanding the convergence between product management and the intricate world of sustainable food systems. This connection is significant as a substantial portion of global emissions are rooted in land use and the broader food ecosystem. By considering such connections, Myers sheds a light on the potential of impactful solutions within the realm of food sustainability, and how his work seeks to reshape consumption habits and reduce food waste for the future.
In the following sections, we’ll delve into the immediate challenges posed by modern food chains and the ways data is helping in food waste reduction.
Are You a Sustainability Professional? Become a Member of the World’s Only Digital Platform That Brings Impact Driven Individuals Together
Tackling Food Waste: Unraveling The Challenges
Food waste isn’t a simple matter. This is why before going any further, it’s essential to get a glimpse into the unseen aspects of food loss, as well as the complexities behind how to best combat it.
In an effort to demonstrate the journey a piece of food takes from a farm to a table–or, to a trash can–Myers calls upon the humble banana. Consider then a banana grown in a remote Ecuadorian farm. What might at first appear a relatively straightforward journey unfolds into a mish-mash of possibility: Consumption? Repurposing? Or is the fate of the banana to be forgotten about in a trash can? While there are many potential conclusions, let’s see what commonly happens.
The Journey Of The Banana
When you look at a stand of bananas in a supermarket, you’re witnessing the culmination of a journey that often takes weeks and thousands of miles to complete. Now then, keeping in mind that that banana was shipped from Ecuador to your local grocery store, imagine it gained one or two brown spots along the way. While this might not be as visually appealing, the fruit is still perfectly edible. But what happens as more time begins to pass? As the spots continue to multiply, the banana looks less and less appetizing until the retailer faces a dilemma: lower the price or remove it from the shelf? This decision, often left to a produce clerk, can lead to something edible being discarded due to its appearance.
For Myers, this scenario illustrates the relationship consumers have with produce displays and how with just a little more knowledge of what’s at play, we can help prevent unnecessary wastage. The fact is, retailers often have to manage numerous kinds of produce, leading to a complex web of challenges that need to be solved to effectively minimize waste. The way Myers sees it then, waste isn’t a result of intention but a consequence of multifaceted considerations within food supply chains.
How Does A Supermarket Combat Waste?
The significance of waste reduction in supermarkets can’t be denied, yet it’s often forced to contend with other priorities. This is why even though many supermarkets express genuine interest in reducing waste, practical considerations make that difficult. The reality is, when faced with the question of additional labor costs or a drop in revenue to achieve zero waste, dynamics shift.
A commonly considered solution for reducing supermarket food waste is to hire extra staff to fine-tune the daily produce orders. However, this requires money and effort. Another strategy involves the practice of, “first in, first out” vs. “last in, first out.” This concept involves arranging produce in a way that ensures riper items are placed first, thereby curtailing waste. However, the reality is that supermarkets want produce sections to look full in order to boost sales, which means that fresher produce ends up mixing with older produce.
A counterintuitive example comes from retailers with nearly zero waste. Achieving this feat often means tolerating visually empty bins—a decision that directly affects sales. Empty-looking bins trigger a psychological response in consumers which deter purchases even when fresh items remain. Therefore, overcoming this subconscious buying behaviour poses a significant challenge.
Navigating The Traceability Of Food Supply Chains
The concept of traceability within the realm of sustainable food supply unveils a complex network of issues and innovative resolutions. At its core, traceability empowers the connection between production, distribution, and consumption, ensuring transparency and fostering responsible practices in the long run. This is because traceability offers the potential for immediate feedback loops, which are essential for aligning individual incentives with the common good.
With successful traceability, it’s possible to transform the way stakeholders in a supply chain approach decision-making, thereby fostering sustainable practices while preserving profits. While all this sounds good, at present, there are still many issues to solve.
Demonstrating Traceability With An Artichoke
Imagine you’re an artichoke farmer implementing regenerative farming techniques. You invest time and resources to enhance soil quality, hoping your efforts will translate into a premium market for your sustainably grown artichokes–Even though you know you won’t be getting a price premium. In such a scenario, would you be comfortable letting your carefully grown artichokes leave the farm knowing they’ll enter a complex food supply chain that is bereft of any traceability?
The fact is, as artichokes travel through the supply chain, each stop becomes a challenge of maintaining quality and sustainability. For instance, a middleman involved in transportation might prioritize cost savings over optimal storage conditions, resulting in a moldy artichoke. Without traceability, there’s no way of figuring out at what point artichoke quality was compromised.
Traceability’s impact is equally important at the retail level. For one, produce usually gets shipped in the cold, with most issues only arising once the produce reaches an ambient temperature. What this means is that when produce is cold during transport, it’s difficult to detect anything wrong. Once you compound that with a lack of traceability, stakeholders are altogether unable to trace back to the cause—Was it a misstep in production, transportation, or storage? Such a lack of accountability undermines the integrity of the entire supply chain, ultimately affecting consumer satisfaction and waste.
Despite its obvious value, another reason why there’s a gap in food supply chain traceability is cost. Supply chain traceability today is expensive, and yet without it, incentives don’t totally align. Currently we’re at a local maximum where the system works well enough but there’s more waste than need be, not to mention consumers receive poorer quality produce than they should. If we are to ever reach a global maximum, this must be solved first.
How Data Reduces Food Waste And Improves Sustainability
For Myers, data is the ultimate tool that could aid in ensuring our food supply chains are sustainable. If there was a system that could collect and aggregate data on the quality and condition of each artichoke, that information would be of immense value in preventing food waste.
The problem is, there’s no access to such data today. It’s impossible to know whether the artichoke was thrown away because it got moldy, wilted, or damaged during transport, which means there’s no sense of accountability. However, by bringing some key pieces of data into a system, Myers believes it’d be possible to one day reach a global maximum where waste decreases while consumer satisfaction increases.
Future Steps For A Greener Food Supply Chain
Looking ahead, much needs to change if we’re to make a shift towards data-driven sustainability. Public and private sectors play key roles in reducing food waste. However, even though consumers can help, the systemic change we need relies on regulation.
The EU’s anti-deforestation regulations, for example, set a strong precedent by creating data layers that could drive change. Under the regulation, products linked to deforestation such as beef, wood, and rubber will now be under watch in a traceability protocol similar to that of what has been discussed. Essentially, for these products to now be sold or exported on the EU market, traders must be able to prove they didn’t come from recently deforested land or contribute to deforestation in any way.
Adopting a similar regulation for our food supply chain is essential to reducing food waste. Though initiatives such as the UN’s Food Waste Index Report aim to support the reduction of food waste by assembling the most comprehensive collection of food waste data and analysis to date, there is still much to be done if we are to halve global food waste by 2030, a goal 12 countries and the C40 Cities Group have set in their sights.
- Connect with Toby on LinkedIn