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Building Sustainable Food Chains For People And The Planet

This year, the United Nations celebrates its second observance of the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste on 29 September. This comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic is placing unprecedented stress on supply chains, but few have felt the pressure more than the food and beverage sector.

The pandemic has accelerated the transformation of various sectors, most notably, e-commerce with the dramatic move of consumers towards online channels. Companies and industries have responded in turn, including those in the food sector that are broadening their offerings to include perishable foods such as fresh groceries. Globally, the food supply chain is undergoing a sea change, with food not only crossing geographic boundaries from farm to store, but also e-commerce channels from store to doorstep.

For consumers, trips to the supermarket or online orders for a grocery basket have now become a more calculated and thoughtful process. There is also greater scrutiny of where our food is produced when choosing healthier options or faced with out-of-stock items, and how sustainable the packaging is when faced with mounting deliveries. Spending more time at home also means the way we consume and dispose of waste becomes more apparent. What is not obvious though, is how the individual choices we make can have a collective impact on the larger environment and society.

The reality is that beyond the household is a larger supply chain that is already facing disruptions from climate change, prolonged drought and floods. The coronavirus should be the final wake-up call for us to take stock of how and where our food is produced and consumed and work collectively towards a more resilient supply chain.

Meeting food waste goals by 2030

According to the United Nations, about 14 percent of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, with significant quantities also wasted in retail and at the consumption level. More than 20% is lost in the case of fruits and vegetables.

In Australia, the majority of food sold is grown and supplied by our farmers. More than 90% of food such as vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs and meat available in supermarkets are locally produced. While this may lower our risk to supply disruptions of imported food, we are no less vulnerable to effects from climate change that are attributable to human behavior.

According to Rabobank’s Food Waste Report, Australians were making positive inroads to implementing sustainable changes before the pandemic hit, with food waste dropping almost two percentage points from an average of 12.9% of food purchased in 2019 to 11.1% in early 2020. Now, figures show Aussies are falling off the wagon, wasting 12.7% of their weekly grocery shop.

But food waste is more than the economic value of the food produced. It also comprises a waste of resources used in food production and distribution, from growing, farming and processing to transporting, cooking and disposal. Just food production alone accounts for a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and when food is disposed of in landfills, it can produce huge amounts of methane – a greenhouse gas at least 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

In its National Food Waste Strategy Feasibility Study just launched in September 2021, the Food and Agribusiness Growth Centre (FIAL) shared that food waste costs the Australian economy around $36.6 billion each year. Over 7 million tonnes of food are wasted every year, with more than 50% occurring in the consumption end of the supply chain. This represented a waste of the resources that have gone into food production and distribution which generated about 17.5M tonnes of carbon dioxide, equivalent to about 3% of Australia’s national greenhouse gas emissions.

The food supply chain is already complex as it is, and the pandemic has made it even more so for food exporting and importing countries alike. Disruptions like country and state border closures, delays in port clearances, and higher freight costs are all adding layers of challenges to the supply chain. Food safety becomes a critical issue when perishable foods are sitting in a container or a truck or subjected to weather vagaries that are becoming more frequent.

As we focus on protecting public health, we must also bring our attention back to making long-term, sustainable changes at every stage of the food supply chain if we are to meet the Australian government’s goal to halve waste by 2030.

Collective action to build food chain resilience

It is therefore very apt that the theme for the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste is “Stop food loss and waste. For the people. For the planet.”

To maximise the use of the food we produce, we agree that actions are needed globally and locally. The FIAL has expressed that “it is feasible to halve Australia’s food waste by 2030, but it will require unprecedented action by governments, industry and the community.” At Sealed Air, our efforts are centered on what we do best – supporting customers and the industry with innovative and essential packaging solutions to manage food quality and safety, and to reduce food waste and loss.

Packaging plays an important role to protect food from spoilage and contamination and extend its shelf life, therefore potentially reducing food waste and related environmental impacts. Given the large amount of resources that go into food production, packaging can reduce the overall environmental impact even when its own environmental footprint is taken into consideration. In closing the loop for a low-carbon circular economy, it pays to look at the carbon footprint of food production which can be many times larger than the packaging used, especially for animal-based foods that tend to have a higher footprint. Choosing the right sustainable packaging solution that does not compromise on performance, protection and shelf-life extension will ensure that food production resources are not wasted.

Food loss and waste have great implications for the food security and the sustainability of the environment we live in. The pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of our supply chain. As it runs its course and risks change, we need to do what we can now to strengthen the resilience of our food production system.

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