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Exploring new approaches to food waste

Pressure to cut food waste is likely to intensify for food companies in the near future as sustainable supply chains become the norm rather than a differentiator, according to a leading expert on food loss and waste prevention.

The European Union aims to halve food waste by 2030 – and this is likely to put industrial food waste in the spotlight, said Sanne Stroosnijder, Programme Manager, Food Loss & Waste Prevention at Wageningen University & Research.

“If you are not sustainable, you are out”

“Today, resource use efficiency is a way to distinguish yourself,” she told delegates at the recent Future of Nutrition Summit in Paris, but she predicts that in as little as five years’ time, failing to take this into account will no longer be an option. “If you are not sustainable, you are out,” she said. “I am confident that the consumer will be a driving force in this trend.”

Currently, an estimated equivalent of 20% of all food produced in European Union is wasted at a cost of €143 billion a year, and it is responsible for about 6% of the region’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EU’s FUSIONS project, set up to find innovative ways to reduce European food waste. While most of that waste happens at the consumer level in the EU (about 53%), another 19% occurs during processing.

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Prevent, reduce and valorise

For now, industry’s approaches to tackle the problem include using it to make other food ingredients or redistributing it for animal feed – but preventing waste in the first place always should be the preferred option, Stroosnijder said.

“There is a battle strategy,” she said. “Prevention of food waste, or donating it, or repurposing it into functional ingredients is by far the most desirable…Prevent if possible, reduce if not, and valorise what is being wasted.”

This valorisation approach involves looking at its composition, the technologies available to convert waste into value-added side streams, and their technical, regulatory and financial viability.

For some crops, she suggested the supply chain could be designed to take wastage into account, ensuring that fruit and vegetable waste, for instance, is optimised for further use, including for sugars, fibres, vitamins or flavonoids.

“You see many more products coming on line that are using waste products,” she said. “What if we could design the properties of our food waste? Plant breeding is certainly being optimised for yield. We could also design plants for better use of their side streams.”

She predicts that there will be a lot of competition for ingredient side streams in the future, as pressure mounts on food manufacturers and ingredient suppliers to use their raw materials in the most sustainable way possible.

“If you can use a particular foodstuff for a direct purpose it is pretty much always the most sustainable option,” she said. “…We need to increase productivity, shift diets, use our crops in a different way and have less competition between food, feed and fuels. But the obvious first step is to stop losing and wasting what we have.”

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