The Trillion Dollar Food Waste Problem

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The next time Grandma tells you not to waste your food, tell her it's too late.

Food wastage happens at every level: production, distribution, wholesale, retail and consumption. By the time food reaches our mouths, a lot more has been wasted along the way.

This is a big, fat problem - one that goes under the radar because it does not immediately affect our daily lives. But the world is wasting close to $1 trillion of food, the bulk by developed countries. In 2015, Singapore threw out 790,000 tonnes of food. At this rate, the city-state's landfill at Pulau Semakau will run out of space within three decades.

The food wastage problem is often mistaken as a food distribution problem. For example, agencies or startups who try to come up with solutions to tackle food wastage often focus on matching and delivering food that are wasted by retailers to people who would go hungry. I think this is a big mistake.

Chronic food wastage will remain despite the emergence of food distribution solutions. Poor food distribution is the result of unequal economic status and thus lack of access to food, while wastage is the result of overproduction. This simplistic differentiation of two separate, albeit overlapping problems, is important to make in order to address either one effectively. Indeed, food wastage is not the same as poor food distribution, and each require its own set of solutions.

Homebakee is among a family of startups that are operating on a made-to-order model. This is potentially a step toward a workable solution to limit food waste. We have no overhead costs because we use spare capacity within homes of our bakers. Overhead costs is a key factor that drives traditional food producers to overproduce. It equally puts pressure on traditional retailers to overstock so they don't risk losing sales. After all, it is less costly to throw some food away than to lose sales. Sales pay for the overhead costs, and the overhead costs in turn drives the pressure to overproduce or overstock. Thus, we have food wastage. The food industry's standard has not changed despite the emergence of methods that help predict food demand.

In a rich city like New York, where Homebakee began operating recently, over a million people live in food insecurity. The focus on food distribution comes into the picture more prominently than food wastage as a result. But the food wastage problem needs a solution. Perhaps we are on our way to figuring it out.

Posted by Denis

Denis Edward is the founder and CEO of HomeBakee. He studied Political Science and International Relations at the National University of Singapore and the University of York. He began his career as an investigative, digital and sports reporter at The New Paper, winning the SPH Journalism Award, The MediaCorp Silver Medal, and a nomination for the Most Inspiring Sports Story of the Year in Singapore. He also received the Motorola Foundation Scholarship and the Ministry of Health Scholarship. Denis is deeply interested in disruptive innovation, e-commerce and food innovation. He, together with his innovative team, is working to build HomeBakee into the greatest bakery company in the world that never actually baked.