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[OPINION] How can we manage demand for fresh food in Asia sustainably?

Sensemaking / [OPINION] How can we manage demand for fresh food in Asia sustainably?

As populations grow and incomes rise, Asian households are moving away from packaged and frozen products, and demanding more fresh fruit, vegetables, fresh meat and dairy. The question is: how can the demand for fresh food be met in a sustainable way?

By Gwyneth Marcelo / 18 Apr 2016

This article was first published by Forum for the Future on 11 Apr 2016.

Asia is beginning to flex its massive consumer chops. By 2030, it will contain two-thirds of the global middle class, accounting for 59 percent of all middle-class consumption.

This creates a complex challenge. As populations grow and incomes rise, Asian households are moving away from packaged and frozen products, and demanding more fresh fruit, vegetables, fresh meat and dairy. The question is: how can the demand for fresh food be met in a sustainable way?

Currently, the infrastructure to store and transport chilled products (also known as cold chain infrastructure), as well as other essential logistical services in the region, are not ready for the growing demand for fresh food. In Thailand for example, shrimp are transported for hours in containers filled with ice, which quickly melts during the first half of the journey; shrimp arrive warm, bloated and mushy at their destination. 

Unappetising as they sound, these methods are business-as-usual food transport practices in the region, and for most perishable products, loss levels are consistently high. If transportation logistics aren’t improved, increased demand for delicate perishable goods is only set to strain supply chains and exacerbate this loss.

Food system emissions are estimated to account for over 25% of all human greenhouse gas emissions, and Asia is a hotspot, contributing 55% of the total amount [1]. The majority of these emissions are due to the production of food that is never consumed.  Environmentally unsustainable transport and storage practices also form a significant factor, contributing directly to emissions and also indirectly to food loss. In South and Southeast Asia pre-consumer food losses account for more than 90 percent of total food wastage [2].

Over two billion people in Asia rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, making them vulnerable to climate change impacts resulting from these greenhouse gas emissions. It’s thus important that we meet growing demand for fresh food in Asia by improving the cold chain infrastructure in a sustainable way, in order to cut down on overall food system emissions.

Another reason why we need to reduce food loss is the looming threat of food insecurity.  Currently, 490 million people in Asia go hungry every night. Imagine what a difference cutting down food losses could make in bringing down hunger and malnutrition. Additionally, improved cold chain infrastructure brings down the cost of healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, making them more accessible for low-income consumers – thus improving their nutritional health.

Building a better, less wasteful food system also improves profit margins. Improved transport and storage conditions increase the quality, shelf-life, safety, and ultimately the retail value of products.

If the benefits are so clear, why aren’t all companies already building more efficient food chains? The answer is that it’s hard to pin down responsibility. As opposed to food waste, supply chain food losses often go unnoticed, are very complicated to measure, and vary by product, region and supply chain. Vegetables and fruit, for example, are produced by smallholder farmers in complex supply chains involving a large number of actors, many of whom lack trust in each other. It’s difficult to pinpoint any one cause of food loss because the likelihood is that many different parties are responsible.

The secret lies in a strong, long-term, trusting relationship between retailers and logistics service providers. While the onus lies with food retailers to demand and pay for more efficient food supply chains, they often focus on reducing highly-visible retail and consumer food waste, and are generally unaware of how much food is lost before it reaches their establishments. On the other hand, food logistics service providers confront this problem every day and are well-poised to address it, but they need their buyers to prioritise it as well, and be willing to invest in solutions to reduce losses. Addressing the issue requires both sides to commit to harnessing the value of lost food in the supply chain, and to work together to tackle the problem.

To try and bring the right stakeholders together and foster mutual trust, Forum for the Future has created the Food Loss Consortium. It is a platform – and more than that, an opportunity – for businesses to form partnerships with like-minded, committed companies across the supply chain, get to know the innovators that are disrupting food logistics, and participate in pilot projects that test industry-transforming investments.  

Some companies are already starting to find innovative solutions. OpenTaste, a new online food retailer, sells fresh produce through an online platform. By shipping directly to customers in Singapore from farms in California, it reduces losses, and could be more cost-effective for consumers. Another exciting firm is EcoHub, which provides tools that allow buyers to quickly and easily estimate the future shelf-life of fish before purchase, so that fishermen who maintain the freshness of their fish by using an effective cold chain can command a higher price.

One can’t underestimate the potential impact of addressing supply chain losses in Asia, and via the Food Loss Consortium we are gathering momentum and expertise to tackle this complex problem throughout the Asia Pacific region. We want to achieve better food security, better profits for local businesses, better nutritional health for all, and ultimately reduce emissions to ensure the future of the region. If you have the expertise, resource and the drive to help make that happen, we’d like to hear from you.

Gwyneth Fries, a Senior Sustainability Advisor, is based in Forum for the Future’s APAC office in Singapore. She spearheads Forum’s work in the region to bring about real change in the food system. For more information about the Food Loss Consortium, contact Gwyneth at

[1] FAO (2013) Food Wastage Footprint

[2] FAO (2013) Food Wastage Footprint

Image credit: Luke Michael / Unsplash

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