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Portrait: Thünen researchers investigate causes of food losses and waste

What are the reasons for food losses at different points in the production and consumption chain? The Thünen Institute is investigating this in an interdisciplinary manner. Two online conferences in September now provided insight into the results of the ongoing work. The fo-cus of the two events with a total of 168 participants from business, science and the associa-tions was, among other things, how the use of artificial intelligence and the remarketing of by-products and surpluses can optimise resource efficiency in the sectors at the beginning of the food supply chain.

For producers, goods that have to be sorted out because of visual defects or because of a change in quality are still a major problem. (Photo: © Mareike Bähnisch)

For producers, goods that have to be sorted out because of visual defects or because of a change in quality are still a major problem. (Photo: © Mareike Bähnisch)

Efficiently reducing food losses

Food waste and losses occur along the value chain. According to the latest survey by the German Federal Office of Statistics, this figure was around eleven million tonnes in 2020. On the disposal side, about 15 percent of this (1.6 million tonnes) is generated in processing and two percent (0.2 million tonnes) in primary production. The United Nations' goal is to reduce food waste and loss globally by 2030 across all sectors of the value chain - from agriculture to the consumer - and to cut it in half at the trade and consumption levels. Germany has also committed to this and launched the National Strategy to Reduce Food Waste in February 2019.

To implement it, the federal government has set up five dialogue forums for all steps of the food supply chain. Their mission: Establish measures that significantly reduce losses. The two online conferences in September 2022 focused on results from the ongoing work of the two dialogue forums Primary Production and Processing, coordinated by the DLG (German Agri-cultural Society) and the Thünen Institute. The latter comprises 15 specialised institutes. As a federal research institution in the business segment of the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL), it has the mandate to develop scientific foundations for political deci-sions and to expand the state of knowledge through research for the benefit of society. Within the dialogue forums, the Braunschweig-based Thünen Institute for Market Analysis investi-gates where the losses and waste occur in the primary production and processing of food.

The researchers not only want to quantify the material flows that are withdrawn from the food supply chain and bring the data up to date, but also identify the causes of losses and waste. "At the same time, our analysis allows us to identify reduction and optimisation potentials and to point out measures for companies and policy makers," explained Manuela Kuntscher at the Primary Production Dialogue Forum.

The central role of high quality standards

The Thünen researcher presented the results of the latest online industry survey in which 460 German primary producers participated. Among the key findings: In the primary sector, the operating companies surveyed are already planning and implementing measures in various areas. For example, surpluses are refined in the company's own operations or marketed via specialised platforms instead of being disposed of as waste. This creates potential for farms to reduce alternative uses outside the food chain, which, according to the Thünen Institute's findings, account for 22 percent of the food produced in primary production.

If there are losses and waste, it is mainly due to consumer behaviour and legal requirements, as well as excessively high quality standards on the consumer side. The latter occurs accord-ing to the answers "very often" (7 percent), "often" (11 percent) or "occasionally" (13 percent). This is also an essential aspect for harvest and pre-harvest losses, in addition to weather in-fluences and other factors. "For the farming operations, the food trade with its requirements plays a central role," says Kuntscher. "Many of them would like to see support from policy-makers on this issue, as well as an increase in awareness among consumers.

Leeway for the visually imperfect

Taking the reins into one's own hands and shaping marketing oneself - one business that is already successfully following this path is that of Dr. Ralf Schaab, a fruit and vegetable pro-ducer from Wiesbaden. Under the "Landmarkt" (Country Market) brand, the farm supplies some of its products from its own agricultural production directly to Rewe markets in its re-gion. What is special about the concept that Schaab presented at the Primary Production Dia-logue Forum: The farmer makes individual agreements with the individual markets. In this case, the food retailer leaves pricing to the producer. "This gives us the opportunity to propose a recommended benchmark price," Schaab said. The delivery frequencies depend on the assortment and demand in the markets. "At the same time, we take care of the orders our-selves and make sure that our products are restocked on the shelf." Schaab can also sell goods of trade class II via the Landmarkt concept at Rewe, for example apples with a small scab spot.

Goods of this kind, which are not accepted by the trade because of visual defects or because of a change in quality, still pose problems for producers. "This is especially true for goods with trade-related packaging and products with a limited shelf life that cannot be easily remarket-ed," explained the chairperson of the Fachzentrum Lebensmittel (Competence Center Food), Prof. Katharina Riehn, at the Primary Production Dialogue Forum, who led the event as moderator.

At the event, Jonathan Sehl, founder of the start-up a.ware regional, demonstrated how fruit and vegetables that are not visually perfect can still be sold. As part of a project, he collected discarded vegetables from organic farms to sell in 2.5 kilogram bags at a lower price. "Con-sumer acceptance of vegetables with minor blemishes is very high," says Sehl. Cosmetic flaws are a question of communication. "If you educate consumers and tell them that produc-ers discard many foods only because of high expectations of buyers, even B goods are well accepted."

From costs to benefits

What quantities are saved and how sustainable are the measures on the demonstration farms? At the Thünen Institute, this is being evaluated by Dr Yanne Goossens. For the start-up a.ware regional, the scientist also carried out a quantitative assessment of resource effi-ciency via a cost-benefit analysis that includes the economic as well as ecological and social benefits of each measure. In this way, Goossens can not only measure revenues, CO2 sav-ings or social benefits, but also make all costs and optimisation potential visible. "For every euro invested, the start-up was already able to save 430 grams of food waste and avoid 130 grams of CO2 at the time of its founding," Goossens explained.

Jonathan Sehl's project is one example of how targeted measures help reduce food waste. Another comes from meat processing: the production of Vienna sausages and Bock sausag-es based on "rescued" goods. The participants at the Processing Dialogue Forum were pro-vided with insights into the evaluation. "At the moment, reworking is not permitted for sausag-es in this quality class," says Goossens. "This is an experimental measure by a company to explore new possibilities."

Instead of disposing of the broken product, a specially developed peeling machine removes the casing skin, making it possible to return the raw product to production. Within one year, this would result in 97 tonnes less food waste for the company if the necessary framework was put in place. "This is equivalent to more than 1,200 pigs and almost 4,000 tonnes of CO2 that could be saved at this point," she said.

With AI against overproduction and rejects

In reducing food waste and loss in processing, the challenge is ultimately to provide producers with new technologies that ensure greater efficiency in the sustainable use of natural re-sources. For IT expert Dirk Mayer, it's clear: "Conventional technologies are reaching their limits here," as Software AG's Senior Director Research emphasised in his presentation. The company is one of the partners in the REIF (Resource-Efficient, Economic and Intelligent Foodchain) project, which is funded by the German Federal of Economics and Climate Pro-tection (BMWK). This project focuses on the use of AI in the dairy, meat and bakery indus-tries to prevent food waste and loss. In order to significantly reduce these in the areas men-tioned, two aspects in particular are crucial - "minimising overproduction and avoiding re-jects", says Mayer. Intelligent sensor technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence will support producers in many processes in the future.

Production processes that can react at short notice to fluctuating consumer demand as well as to different raw material qualities are focal points here, as Mayer illustrated with examples from the baked goods and meat industries. Rejects occur here, for example, during the start-up of the systems, as the optimal parameters must first be achieved. "According to current estimates, we can reduce losses at this point by 90 percent through AI-driven process con-trol," says Meyer. As far as the future implementation of automated and networked processes in practice is concerned, there must also be an optimised exchange of data and information across all steps of the value chain. Further work in the project therefore includes the devel-opment of a digital platform based on blockchain technology. The goal is to create a central marketplace for AI services to connect users and providers.

Additional information and contact

Thünen-Institut für Marktanalyse, Braunschweig
(Thünen Institute of Market Analysis)

Dr. Thomas Schmidt
Tel. +49 531 596 5314