Alexandra Tracy, Green Finance Advisor of Friends of the Earth (HK)

After the industrial sector, agriculture and deforestation are among the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Asia, accounting for more than 20 percent of the total.  Much of this occurs at the farm level, especially where there is livestock, which generates significant methane emissions.  But at the same time, off farm activities are contributing a growing share of food system emissions across the entire production, transportation and consumption chain.

As inefficiencies in the supply chain are becoming better understood, agribusiness and food companies are responding to increasing pressure from governments, investors and consumers to improve bottlenecks and reduce wastage.  New technologies can address some of the challenges, and can be utilised to create affordable solutions for rural communities.

Reducing food loss and waste

Every year, approximately 690 million tonnes of food is lost and wasted in Asia.  The loss of foodstocks means that extra production is required to compensate, bring more land into cultivation and using up scarce water and natural resources.

Technology can be used to reduce wastage at source – enabling farmers and manufacturers only to produce according to actual demand.  The Japan Weather Association, for example, has collaborated with food producers such as Sagamiya Foods, which makes tofu, and sauce company, Mizkan Holdings, to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) system to forecast food demand based on weather information and sales data.  The system allows companies scale back redundant production and cut food inventory losses. 

However, the majority of losses occur in emerging markets immediately after harvest, where poor storage facilities and inadequate transport infrastructure mean that large amounts of food are wasted.  In India, for example, only about 10 percent of perishable food is kept in cold storage systems, leading to spoiling of up to 30 percent of fruits and vegetables.  To tackle this problem, the government launched the India Cooling Action Plan to provide better access to sustainable cooling technology for local farmers.  In neighbouring Bangladesh, a private company Solar E Technology provides affordable, solar based micro cold storages.

In more developed markets, automated freezer storage, using robots to stack and retrieve food products efficiently, can reduce food wasted through human error or delays.  For example, in Malaysia, a local company, SK Cold Chain, offers fully automated cold storage facilities and warehouse management systems.

Food waste in cities

In cities, growing volumes of food waste, as well as packaging materials at the retail and consumer levels have to be disposed of by incineration or in landfill, both creating emissions.

Some governments in Asia are using financial measures to reduce food waste.  For example, in several areas of Korea, authorities have introduced a policy requiring households to pay for recycling services according to the quantity of food waste disposed, which has reduced total volume by over 10 percent.  Parts of China have similar schemes for both households and restaurants.

Better inventory management

Restaurants can also use inventory management systems to track and reduce food waste.  A British start up, Winnow Solutions, with offices in Singapore and Shanghai, uses smart meters to track everything thrown away in a restaurant kitchen and allows staff to alter menus and portion sizes accordingly.  Users have been able to achieve a reduction in food waste of up to 50 percent.  Another start up in Singapore, Lumitics, uses AI to help hotels and airlines to understand how much food waste they are generating and adjust their planning decisions about what produce to buy and serve.  As well as reducing overall emissions, these initiatives allow businesses to monitor and better manage their costs.

Packaging can be part of the solution

Food packaging in a typical Asian supermarket, where the onus is on hygiene and appearance, contributes materially to the overall emissions in the supply chain.  There has been recent pressure to move away from single use plastics and some countries, including China, are considering allowing recycled plastic materials.

But innovative packaging can also increase the shelf life of fresh food and reduce wastage.  In Singapore, for example, the government’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, together with a local company, Dou Yee Enterprises, have developed a new material for food packaging that can extend the shelf life of food by at least 50 percent.

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