Wednesday, 20 July, 2011

The Save Food Conference

Something that most of us are taught in childhood to finish everything on our plates or to take only what we can finish eating, was the subject of another international conference at this year’s interpack in May in Dusseldorf. I attended a similar conference during the iPackIma event in Milan in 2009 as well, but the recent conference was better organised, attended and focussed.

On the first day of the Save Food Conference we were told that consumers with high levels of education and those who fail to write a shopping list are more likely to waste food.
A survey carried out across seven European countries by the German packaging group Cofresco found that more than 20% of household food expenditure in Europe was spent on food which is thrown away, and that more than half of that waste could have been avoided with better planning. Half of the wasted food consists of fruits and vegetables while 30% of packaged food is thrown away without even being opened. Dirk Lohmer, the CEO of Cofresco told the participants, “Only 6% of the respondents even admit that they throw food away.”

Subsequent presentations at the conference estimated world food losses at around 1.3 billion tonnes with the greatest share of this being fruit and vegetables. Europe throws away 71 million tonnes of food each year. Ulf Sonesson of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology said that a study conducted last year had found major differences in food wastage between the developed world and developing economies. In developed countries, food losses were very low at the start of the supply chain at the farm end but very high at the retailer/consumer end of the chain.

However, in the poorer and less developed economies, the opposite trend was observed very high wastage at harvest and low wastage by consumers. According to Sonesson, a lack of supply chain infrastructure, including packaging, was at the heart of the food waste problem in developing economies.

The conference had some interesting presentations such as how to reduce food losses through international cooperation and exchange of post harvest technologies. Kenneth Marsh who made this presentation recommended a knowledge supermarket. The conference clearly tried to encourage entrepreneurship and investment in food processing and packaging technology in the less developed and emerging economies. As far as what packaging can do for the food supply chain, it was well argued that when packed, food waste and food losses are reduced by a factor of ten. That increase in packaging cost by Rs 50,000 can reduce food waste by as much Rs 15 lakh.

However, it was also clear that while international bodies talk this talk and even support institutions in the developing countries, there are miles to go before there is global harmonisation of phytosanitary standards. The issue of trade barriers by the rich countries and their huge subsidies to their farmers was also raised both by the moderator of the conference and by a participant in the audience without any real response. Thus there is still a huge disconnect between do-gooders, consultants, and even businesspersons who appreciate the opportunity to invest in food processing and packaging in the emerging economies on the one hand, and the governments of the rich countries who have been holding up the international talks on trade barriers for agricultural products, on the other.

- Naresh Khanna

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