Circular production key to cut massive food waste in PH, says agri expert

The Philippines needs to transition to circular food production systems to guarantee food security, as waste adds up to more than 1,700 metric tons every day while millions of Filipinos go hungry, according to an agricultural scientist.

Cherrie Atilano, founding farmer, president and CEO of social enterprise AGREA Agricultural Systems International, said that if circularity is implemented in food systems, waste can be captured to prevent nature’s degradation while enabling income generation from the captured waste.

The agricultural entrepreneur noted that about 1,717 metric tons of food go to waste daily in the Philippines.

To illustrate, each Filipino wastes one tablespoon or 14 grams of rice daily, based on a 2013 food consumption survey by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute, said Atilano.

As a result, P23 million worth of rice turns to waste every day in this country, enough to feed 4.3 million individuals. The amount is based on 2012 data from the International Rice Research Institute, added Atilano in her presentation at a recent online forum.

Moreover, rice consumes about 4,000 to 5,000 liters of water per kilogram of grain produced, underlining the urgency of addressing food waste through the transition from a linear economy to a circular one.

But the task is not easy, warned Atilano. Farmers and producers need support to make the transition to a circular economy and prevent food loss, a term that refers to the food lost along the supply chain between the producer and the market.

This support can be in the form of promoting sustainable and regenerative agricultural production, establishing composting and bio-digester facilities, building post-harvest and cold storage facilities, and establishing and strengthening market linkages.

Atilano also recommends the improvement of logistics systems and construction of more farm-to-market roads, noting it is the farmers who shoulder food loss arising from an inefficient transport system.

She further stated that it is necessary to shorten the supply chain “because the longer the chain, the more difficult for us to transition to a circular economy.”

She urges the practice of zero waste through the processing and conversion of “misfits,” or what are considered “ugly fruits and vegetables,” into jams, pickles, and other high-value bottled food products.

For consumers, meanwhile, Atilano said a variety of initiatives can be implemented to reduce food waste, which is defined as food wasted before, during or after meal preparation.

For one, food processing facilities should be required to have their own bio-waste management systems, while restaurants must have a food digester to convert their waste into fertilizer.

Since buffets in restaurants and hotels generate high food wastage, Atilano suggests the creation of a policy governing such offerings.

Atilano called on chefs to champion the zero food waste and zero food loss movement and asked consumers to buy only what they really need and only what they can eat.

Pasta, just like rice, should also be made available in half serving sizes.

There should be a common facility for composting for every town or city.

She also recommended educating more Filipinos about giving support to local farmers, especially as increased importation of agricultural products is being employed as a solution to the high price of food.

The environmental advocate stressed that sufficient funding is a crucial driver in the transition to a circular food economy.

“We need to rally our public sector to increase the budget in agriculture. As much as we say we need to do all kinds of intervention, without money that fuels the transition, nothing is going to happen,” she said.

Inviting the private sector to participate is a must, such as by asking companies to invest in post-harvest and cold storage facilities. Nongovernmental organizations are also vital as they play a key role in the consolidation, clustering and forming of farmer associations and cooperatives, which is necessary “for us to reach economies of scale,” she added.

“There’s so much to be done, but the biggest question is: Who will fund this transition?” said Atilano. “Public sector should be challenged to fund this. Private sector should see this as a business opportunity” to make an impact on the people and the planet.

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