Not letting an opportunity go to waste

A staggering one third of the food produced in the world is thrown away, but a growing number of entrepreneurs are saving it from the dustbin to create tasty snacks and drinks. And it’s becoming big business.

It is almost unthinkable that we throw away a third of all the food that produced in the world. A growing number of entrepreneurs see opportunities in saving produce from the dustbin and are building thriving food and drink businesses from it.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) around 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted every year* – enough to feed three billion people.

Not only that, it’s estimated food waste accounts for 28 per cent of the world’s agricultural area, has a blue water footprint of more than 250km3 a year and, horrifically, generates some 3.3 billion of greenhouse gases. To put that into perspective, if global food waste was a country, it would be the highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world after China and the US.

When you factor in the transportation used to ship huge quantities of food and drink around the world in what is now a truly global supply chain, it adds up to a huge amount of resources being wasted.

Tackling the causes

Eradicating waste means dealing with the causes, which for many is not only the production system but also the way food is sold and our buying habits. Suppliers, producers and campaigners are agreed that one of the principal causes of waste in the food system is retailer buying policy. Last-minute cancellations and rejection of fruit and vegetables on cosmetic grounds has a significant effect on the amount of food wasted in the system, often leaving farmers with surplus produce they have to throw away.

“Food continues to go to waste because of retailer policies and this must be addressed to achieve a less wasteful food chain,” said Carina Millstone, executive director at Feedback. “We need to keep the pressure up to make supermarkets follow through and work towards reducing food waste across their supply chains.”

“Food continues to go to waste because of retailer policies”

- Carina Millstone, Feedback

Pimply Pumpkins

Other factors such as bumper crops or weather conditions that damage the appearance of produce can lead to waste too, both significant problems for Harry Luring’s farm in Groningen, the Netherlands this year.

“Our pumpkin crop was enormous this year,” said farmer Harry Luring. “We produced 30% more than average. But they were damaged by a hailstorm, which gave the skins a pimply appearance. They are fine to eat, but were unsaleable.”

Shaping the future

Harry Luring’s surplus, unsaleable pumpkins were rescued from landfill by Dutch wonky vegetables champion Kromkommer, which makes soup from misshapen vegetables and whose produce is now available in more than 50 retailers in the Netherlands. Kromkommer now has a network of growers, shops, restaurants and the public – the Krommunity – that brings together all links in the food supply chain to redistribute surplus crops where they are needed most.

Beer from Bread

Kromkommer is just one example of the many enterprises that create value from surplus produce. Another is Toast Ale which uses waste bread to make up one third of the grain bill used in beer making. This has a dual effect of saving resources used to grow barley and using up bread that would otherwise have been thrown away. Not only that, 100 per cent of the profits from beer sales go to Feedback, which helps the organisation continue its war on waste.

“Around 44 per cent of the bread made in the UK goes to waste,” said founder Tristram Stuart. “We thought, why not use some of that to make beer? That’s how it used to be made thousands of years ago, so we could do the same.”

It’s an idea that seems to have captured the world’s imagination as Toast now brews in New York, Rio de Janeiro, Iceland, Cape Town and all over the UK.

“The potential for reducing waste and the impact we have on the environment is enormous,” added Stuart. “If you imagine one third of all the current grain used in the brewing process being replaced with surplus bread, you’re not only significantly cutting waste, you’re reducing the amount of resources such as land, transport and water that would have been used to grow that grain.”

“Bread replaces a third of the grain in the brewing process”

- Tristran Stuart, Toast Ale

Sustainability sells

Becoming increasingly horrified at the amount of waste in the commercial catering industry she worked in prompted Hannah McCollum to set up ChicP. The company, which produces a core range of three types of hummus using fruit and vegetables deemed unfit for supermarket consumption, is committed to reducing food waste in the UK.

“I wanted to help farmers who are regularly producing too much and having their goods rejected,” said Hannah. “I started out getting produce at markets, but as the company has grown, I have moved on to sourcing ingredients at wholesalers and eventually, I want to deal with farmers direct.

“But it’s not just about dealing with surplus. We are also about awareness. People throw a lot of food away when they could reuse it, so one of our aims is to provide education too.”

For Snact, a UK-based company that takes surplus fruit and turns it into a range of delicious snacks, sustainability throughout its operations is the overall aim.

“We have a reputation for using surplus produce, so we are now being approached by suppliers as a genuine solution for their overstock,” said Michael Minch Dixon, co-founder. “Since we started out in 2013, we’ve probably saved more than 150 tonnes of fruit from being thrown away.

Sustainability is ingrained within the company. Not only does the company reuse resources where possible – for example, discarded banana skins are used to make animal feed – it is also one of the first snack producers to use entirely compostable packaging.

“As an organisation, we’re committed to tackling more than one waste stream and are now looking at other ways of doing this, from renewable energy to developing more uses for surplus,” added Michael.

Growing market

While none of these organisations are high-volume producers, they have all experienced growth over the last few years, which suggests the market for rescued food products is becoming increasingly popular.

Toast Ale has experienced phenomenal growth in the two years it has been operating, with sales growing from €58,500 in 2016 to more than €300,000 projected in 2017.

“The craft beer industry is going from strength to strength, driven by a market segment that is keenly aware of issues such as sustainability and waste,” said Tristram Stuart. “Our target customers are 26 to 44 years old, middle income earners living in urban areas. They tend to be socially conscious and responsible.”

It’s that generation that appears to be driving growth in the market, as Michael Minch Dixon said.

“While it’s still a new space, the ethical produce market is growing and consumers are spending more in it,” he said. “Our products have a positive message behind them that is increasingly popular, especially among Millennials. But you need to deliver a good product as well as a feel-good factor.”

“You need to deliver a good product as well as a feel-good factor”

- Michael Minch Dixon, Snact

Legislation required

But while that market and the enterprises tapping into it are on the rise, there is general agreement among most stakeholders that these initiatives are only making a tiny dent in the world’s food waste statistics.

Kromkommer, Toast Ale, ChicP, Snact and the wealth of other businesses that have brought inventive solutions to market can play an important role in tackling surplus, but it will take much more to tackle the larger issues.

Ariadna Rodrigo from Zero Waste Europe, an NGO committed to tackling waste in its many forms, says: “Social and other enterprises that use surplus produce can help reduce waste and provide inspiration to perhaps alter people’s behaviour, but for real change to occur, we think legislation is needed. And that needs to target areas such as supermarket purchasing policy, packaging, local refuse collection and ultimate waste disposal. Sustainability needs to be easier and cheaper at all stages of the food chain and that’s not something individuals or small organisations can deliver.”