Working Towards a Sustainable Food System


In a recent article, TOMRA’s Sustainability and Strategy Director Nicolai Prytz takes a look at how businesses, consumers and policymakers can help make the future of food sustainable.

With a rapidly growing population, adopting sustainable production practices on a global scale is an imperative to safeguard the future of the planet. The food supply chain is certainly one area where there is an urgent need for improved sustainability. Without food, society as a whole becomes unable to function.

System inefficiencies in the food sector also cause an unnecessary output of energy during production, which amplifies the undeniably negative impacts of climate change of agriculture, including unstable growing conditions for many crops and an overall reduction in the volume of produce from arable land.

These issues, coupled with the rise in global population and demand for food, represent significant areas of concern for the food industry – from fark to fork.

Action needs to be taken both to reduce food waste and tackle climate impacts and in and from the food supply chain. The key to make the future of food sustainable is early adoption of best practices across the supply chain, for which technological innovation can be a major driver. This article looks at options for food sustainability and the role the food industry needs to play to protect its future.

The Need for Sustainability

Sustainability can be defined as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” For corporations, sustainability is not just about introducing environmentally friendly initiatives, as some may perceive. It is about protecting and utilizing resources efficiently and effectively.

The UN expects the world population to rise by two billion people over the next 30 years. With this increase in population, comes the need to increase the amount of food produced, which will inevitably increase both the amount of agricultural land needed, as well as food waste generated across the supply chain, and the greenhouse gas emission from food production.

This is where food sustainability is key, to mitigate the negative impacts of increased production and ensure that food supplies are not exhausted for future generations.

The Fight Against Food Waste Must Continue

According to the World Resource Institute (WRI), almost a quarter of food produced for human consumption goes uneaten. This food waste and loss is created across the entire supply chain, including production, handling, storage, processing, distribution, and consumption. An important distinction can be made between food ‘loss’ in the production process and food ‘waste’ which occurs in the food consumption and retail stage.

Globally, the causes of food waste and loss differ from continent to continent. In North America and Europe, where the annual food waste and loss combined is roughly 100% per consumer, food waste (i.e. consumption stage) accounts for more than half. In comparison, only 5% of food waste and loss combined in Sub-Saharan Africa is related to consumption, and the rest is lost during the production, handling and storage stages of the supply chain.

These figures highlight the imbalance in food efficiency between developed and developing countries. Developed countries need to change consumer behavior, whereas developing nations must look towards improving infrastructure and processes in the early stages of the supply chain. 

As for production-side food waste, re-purposing of produce is a key solution. If an apple or a blueberry does not have high enough quality for one use, one must find another use for it and make wasting the produce the very last resort. Sensor-based sorting systems can determine, for example, the quality level of a product, and thus allow for lower quality products to be reworked until they are fit for another purpose, such as pet food or animal feed. 

At TOMRA, sorting and grading solutions can help increase the yield of produce by between 5-10% which when put into context equates to as much as 25,000 trucks of potatoes every year. This allows businesses to maximize yields and recovery rates while reducing waste and improving the overall quality of the produce.

The company’s solutions can also help clean up crops that in the past would have not to be harvested, if damaged by adverse weather events, like hail, strong winds or torrential rain. Such events typically mean that incoming defect loads are high, but sensor-based cleaning of these damaged crops, together with removing subtle defects, has a strong positive impact on the shelf life of produce like fresh fruit/salads. 

Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions

In addition to the challenges of food waste and loss, the food industry must also take responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the negative climate impacts caused by the food supply chain. 

The food industry sits at the very core of several environmental issues, being both responsible for nearly two-thirds of global biodiversity loss and a major contributor to climate change. Agriculture currently accounts for 12 gigatons of CO2 per year of global carbon emissions, a number of projected to rise up more than 50% by 2050. 

One area with significant room for improvement is transport and the distance that food travels from farm to fork. Consumer demand has left to an expectation that all produce is available 365 days a year and the understanding that some produce is seasonal has been lost, meaning it must be imported from around the world to meet the wants of the consumer.

Reducing energy consumption is also high on the agenda. To this end, the TOMRA Eco steamer peeler was designed with reducing output in mind and offers a sustainable way to produce food. The machine can lower energy usage by 25%, which means savings of up to USD90,000 per year for production businesses, as well as helping reduce water usage (28% less steam compared to similar machines).

Sorting solutions also allow for any defective produce to be removed from the supply chain before is it frozen. This is a common practice for fruits and can help reduce energy usage and optimize yields. In other words, sorting technologies have great potential to strengthen both probability and sustainability for many food companies. 

A Sustainable Future for Food

To achieve a sustainable future for the food industry, governments, corporates and consumers alike must change the way in which we produce and handle food – from farm and fork. With the world population set to increase to nearly 10 billion people over the next 30 years, the industry must adapt and adopt new practices to reduce waste, cut greenhouse gas emissions and ensure that agricultural land is used as sustainably as possible.

By 2050, food demand will increase by 50%, so meeting these challenges is vital to ensure food sector sustainability for future generations. In conclusion, TOMRA Food has reaffirmed its commitment to offer the latest technology to help improve yields, reduce waste and use our food resources more efficiently – three key factors in food sustainability.

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