The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines "food waste" as the discarding of edible food at the retail and consumer level, distinguishing it from "food loss", which is the reduction in the mass of edible food at the production, post-harvest and processing stages of the food value chain. Food waste and food loss is a critical global problem, with around 1 billion tons of food being discarded globally each year. This translates into serious consequences for the sustainability of the global food system with negative social, environmental and economic impacts.
In this context, the European SISTERS project is actively involved in spreading the Stop Food Waste message. SISTERS, funded by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement no. 101037796), aims to establish, through innovation, a new paradigm to achieve a sustainable reduction of food waste in Europe. SISTERS will reduce food waste and loss by more than 27% and greenhouse gas emissions by around 20%.
How? By developing systemic innovations, the SISTERS consortium, made up of dozens of partners from different European countries, aims to curb food loss along all stages of the agri-food value chain: from the creation of a platform for primary producers, which they can access to sell surpluses, to the development of smart containers that will help monitor the condition of food during transport. SISTERS will also develop a new bio-based material for innovative sustainable packaging that will improve food preservation.
The pilot actions will be tested by a hundred primary producers, as well as by society as a whole: consumers will be asked about their level of acceptance via a QR code that will be generated as part of the project.
The cost of food waste
There are some 828 million hungry people in the world, while 3.1 billion have difficulty accessing a healthy diet. Food wastage is a huge social and ethical problem that leaves behind alarming figures: two billion people could be fed just with the food that is thrown away. In addition, such food waste means wasting the resources used for its production, such as water, nutrients, energy and land, as well as labor.
Food waste and food loss contribute to climate change, accounting for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, food waste generates so many greenhouse gases that, if it were a country, it would rank third among the world's largest emitters. Food wastage and food loss also entail large economic losses, as the value of food produced in the world that ends up being wasted exceeds 0.9 trillion euros per year. In the European Union (EU), 153.5 million tons of food is wasted every year along the value chain, according to a 2022 Feedback EU report, which amounts to almost 140 million tons of agricultural products imported into the EU. Of this amount, more than 20% originates in households (32.5 million tons per year), while around 30% takes place in the post-transformation stages (retail/wholesale, food services and households).
Also in the EU, the phenomenon of food waste and loss is responsible for 6% of the EU's greenhouse gas emissions, which means that, in order to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, as is the objective of the European Green Pact, serious measures have to be taken now and industrial production and consumption strategies have to be readapted. The EU has committed to halving food waste per capita globally, both at retail and among consumers, and to reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, in line with target 12.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Legally binding targets on food waste are currently being developed for EU Member States.
Still, for change to be possible, systemic and collective action is needed. This requires raising consumer awareness of the problem and mobilizing consumers in the fight against food waste. A great opportunity to trigger informed action among consumers is Stop Food Waste Day, which SISTERS is joining, and which this year takes place on April 26. It is a Compass Group USA initiative started in 2017 that has gained global reach and recognition.
SISTERS innovations: from production to consumption
In the food production phase, due to the functioning of the markets, primary producers obtain surpluses and, due to strict market requirements and high aesthetic standards, part of the production is discarded. In fact, in the EU, more than half of the food that is lost along the supply chain is lost at the primary production stage. To respond to this waste, SISTERS aims to offer primary producers a new Short Chain Platform. Through this tool, primary producers will be able to sell to consumers their products that would otherwise be discarded, for example, because they do not meet the aesthetic standards of the market. In this way, for example, "ugly" fruits and vegetables will reach consumers directly.
In the logistics phase, food losses occur during handling, storage and transport, due to product degradation under sub-optimal conditions. SISTERS is designing smart containers to better preserve fresh food during transport. These containers are equipped with state-of-the-art sensors so that the conditions inside the container are perfectly adapted to the transported product, reducing the risk of spoilage and, therefore, food loss.
In addition, SISTERS is creating bio-based packaging materials with optimized recyclable and compostable properties, which will be used to manufacture a new range of sustainable packaging. This biopackaging will incorporate smart and affordable labeling that will allow them to act as a warning and monitoring system, as it will display real-time information about the state of the food. Thanks to this packaging, the shelf life of food will be extended while reducing food waste.
SISTERS will also help retailers and wholesalers on their way to sustainability. To this end, a best practice manual will be developed to promote awareness and the adoption of new criteria for action among these key players in the food chain.
Entities that actively implement the guidelines and act against food loss and waste will receive a "Seal of Excellence". This recognition will officially validate the optimal behavior of retailers and wholesalers in pursuit of sustainability and the circular economy.
Beyond the production and sales stage, SISTERS seeks to correct unsustainable consumption dynamics in homes, canteens and restaurants. To provide consumers with valuable information about food products, QR coding of labeling is being developed. The SISTERS QR code will make it easier for consumers, with a simple scan of the QR code, to learn about the origin of the food product, its preservation, and the economic and environmental cost of its waste, among others.
By addressing the problem of food waste and loss in a systemic way, focusing on all relevant stages of the food value chain, it is expected that SISTER S is expected to make a positive contribution to increasing the sustainability of the European food system.