Coalition against food waste

Any food that doesn't end up on our plates has not been put to the purpose for which it was intended. This insight has inspired teams of hackers, data crunchers, advertising professionals, potato experts, environmental scientists, students and bankers to delve into the pressing issue of food waste. Ruud Huirne, Rabobank's Director of Food & Agri Netherlands, was right there with them and sums up the general consensus: 'Food waste should not be regarded as an issue to be solved by technical and financial experts, but should be made to resonate with the general public. From people in the street to schoolchildren, everyone needs to join in and get involved.'

The facts

'Collectively, European consumers throw out 30 billion euros worth of food annually, and before the food even gets to those consumers, another 60 billion euros are wasted at the production and distribution stage. These may just seem like cold numbers, but when you think about it, it’s a bizarre situation.

If it’s going to end up being thrown out, it needn’t have been produced in the first place. We need to start acting on this, with seven billion people to nourish worldwide today. That number is set to increase to nine billion by 2050, while the supply of available land, water and raw materials is only going to decline.'

Rabobank's role

'Any food that does not end up on somebody’s plate has not served its purpose, it’s that simple – you’re squandering raw materials, time and money. And it's also a waste of the dedication, professional expertise and creativity of the people who produce our food. Since we count many food producers among our customers, we feel particularly strongly about this. In the Netherlands alone, Rabobank has 55,000 customers operating in the agricultural and food production sectors and this number of customers is even higher outside the Netherlands.

Our bank supports customers in these sectors in embracing the food challenge by providing them access to financing, expertise and networks. We call it: Banking for Food. The objective of our Banking for Food programme is to increase food production and improve food distribution, which will benefit people's health. This requires a solid foundation, however: the food supply chains must be economically stable. One of the priorities is reducing food waste.'  

Hack Food Waste

'As part of our effort to help fight food waste, for the past six months we have been running an initiative which I've dubbed 'Hack Food Waste'. It all began back in autumn 2014, when we organised a session where teams of hackers, data crunchers, designers and experts in the food production sector put their heads together and worked for 32 consecutive hours on the question of how they could develop ideas to reduce waste in the potato supply chain. When they emerged from their marathon session – which included lots of innovative thinking, fun and pizza – they pitched their ideas to Rabobank.

There were two ideas that stood out for us – ideas that we felt could be of potential interest to our customers.

The first of these involved using an app, game or teaching pack to make children aware of food waste and get them involved in helping to reduce it. It's important to get children on board with this issue, because they haven't yet formed fixed food-related habits as such.

The other idea is aimed at farmers who, encouraged by favourable conditions for growth, sometimes end up increasing their output to the point where it outstrips demand. Sometimes the price is too low to harvest for the normal market. The solution proposed was to create an app that provides farmers and horticulturists with international market data and information on logistics costs and the applicable regulations, so that they can see at a glance where they might be able to profitably sell their surplus output after all.'

Practical value

'My first question was: Why aren't these kinds of applications available yet? But it must also be ascertained whether these ideas do, indeed, have demonstrable practical value for schoolchildren, teachers and potato farmers. To get to the bottom of this question, Rabobank recently hosted a session for the two potential start-ups which contributed the winning ideas. They were given the opportunity to hone the ideas they had developed during the 32-hour hackathon and see if they passed muster in practice. We had marketing professionals, potato experts, environmental and food scientists, software experts, a textbook publisher, students and bankers all share their insights, expertise and ideas. It really was an incredible experience!

My first question was: Why aren't these kinds of applications available yet? But it must also be ascertained whether these ideas do, indeed, have demonstrable practical value for schoolchildren, teachers and potato farmers.

As a bank specialising in food and agribusiness, we feel it is our role to help the sector get ahead by bringing people together and giving them a nudge in the right direction. You never know if it might lead to some innovative new solutions that will end up benefiting our customers.'

Coalition

'I feel that the whole 'Hack Food Waste' approach just goes to show that, when you're dealing with major issues like this, you need technical experts and creative thinkers on your side. You need to get people in with fresh perspectives who are able to approach the issue from a different angle. Following the initial brainstorming stage, farmers and schoolchildren can then test the ideas to see what is practicable. While they're trying concepts on for size, they, in turn, will also come up with new ideas of their own.

Of course, the value of the chain is huge. When it comes to agriculture and food production, Rabobank tends to take a supply-chain-based approach: 'from farm to plate' and 'from seed to eat' and all that. But in reality tackling the issue of food waste requires an approach that looks beyond the supply chain alone. The strategy pursued should not be restricted to the technical or financial aspects involved; people on the street and children in the classroom need to be brought into it as well. This challenge requires different types of expertise than farmers and bankers offer.

No matter what happens and what types of apps may become available in the future, our experiences of the past six months have taught me that the fight against food waste – if we're talking format – will not be an autonomous business model, so to speak, and may not even qualify as a cooperative. Instead, it will be a coalition, one with a powerful clarion call to us all: Let's not waste our next generation.'