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Packaging can solve global famine

Shaking his head at what he calls the “sheer absurdity of the focus on packaging waste and sustainability by policy makers when compared to food waste” the managing director of Europen, Julian Carroll, delivered a strong-worded presentation at the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Save Food conference earlier this year.

As the head of Europen, the industry body for packaging and its impact on the environment, Carroll has spent years making the simple point that packaging waste pales into insignificance compared to the losses incurred by wasting food.

“Often, it is to no avail,” he concludes. “Prejudices were too strong. We who know what packaging can do often felt like Cinderella: ignored by all, scorned by most, yet yearning to be taken to the ball.

“Packaging, and the logistics industry that depends on it, is essential for modern trade. Without it, the efficient and safe transportation of goods from their place of production into our homes is simply out of the question. The reality is that packaging saves food!”

The numbers tell the story. In India, post-harvest losses for food grains amount to 20 million tonnes each year – that’s equivalent to the EU’s annual wheat exports, or those of Russia in 2008-09. Wheat prices rocketed that year as Russian harvests failed and analysts attribute the current unrest in the Arab world to the dangerously unaffordable cost of wheat. But virtually unnoticed, the same volume goes to waste in India.

Fragile fruit and vegetables fare even worse; the Indian government estimates post-harvest farm-to-fork losses to be as much as 50 per cent – that’s about 80 million tonnes of produce – equivalent to the total fruit and vegetable volume produced by the entire EU. 

China’s government data puts forward the financial case. In 2008, total food losses cost the country more than US$3.2 billion, of which, by the Julian Carrollgovernment’s own admission, $1.5bn was due to ‘losses in transit while a staggering $1.7bn was attributed to ‘inappropriate packaging’.

It’s the same song throughout Asia: On average, Thailand wastes around 34 per cent of all food, in a normal year Vietnam can lose 25-30 per cent and in more extreme weather conditions, typhoons and heavy monsoons, this can rise to as high as 80 per cent.

As Carroll says: “In this context, any technology that is able, at a stroke, to increase the amount of food available to the world by a quarter or more should be seen for what it is: a miracle, the fulfilment of a wish as old as human belief itself.”

The technology, as we all know, exists. It is called packaging, and it means reduced waste. Vermin cannot get at grains or beans sold in sealed plastics bags, while bakery products stay fresh for days or even weeks in laminates.

With aseptic packaging, milk does not go sour and can be stored for weeks without refrigeration.

Even the humble corrugated box means that fruit and vegetables can be harvested, handled, transported, stored and sold properly.

A study – Global Food Losses and Food Waste – conducted for the FAO by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology and released at the Save Food congress at Interpack, suggests that around a third of the food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tonnes a year.

Yet for all the report’s case studies, findings of the causes and prevention of food losses and waste – a word-search of the document reveals a curious omission. The word ‘packaging’ is not found. Not a single mention, not even in passing. Is the view that ‘packaging is waste’ so prevalent that the FAO researchers don’t even see it as one of their solutions?

For this very reason, Asian packaging associations and institutes are tightly linked to government, and in some countries, such as Thailand and China, are full-blown government departments.

Academic research is directed at food preservation: Dr Vanee Chonhenchob, Associate Professor at Bangkok’s Kasetsart University (KU), has been developing packaging for food and agricultural products aimed at damage reduction during handling and transportation with a specific focus on active packaging and modified-atmosphere packaging for use in Thailand’s rural hill regions.

Sophisticated modified-atmosphere packaging may be commonplace in western hypermarket shelves, preserving fruit, vegetables and meat fresh well past their natural use-by date. But is it appropriate for use in rural Thailand? Developing nations are just that, developing, and currently the only global economic growth is being seen in Asia.

As their incomes rise people increasingly buy packaged foods, entrepreneurs build up the chain necessary to produce them, and farmers find a market that values their production and manages it better.

Yet, somehow, along the way people lose faith in their own ability to judge a food’s freshness. The taste-and-sniff test, common to the wet markets in Asia, is impossible in a supermarket.

As a result, in the west, foods that are perfectly good to eat are thrown away for a host of ill-informed reasons - for example, consumers failing to distinguish between the ‘best before’ and the ‘use by’ dates. As post-harvest waste drops, consumer waste rises. Indon meat mkt1

In rich countries post-harvest losses are minimal, less than three per cent. But the volume of food wasted by households is astonishing. The European Commission estimates that consumers wasted more than 89 million tonnes in 2009; that’s about 11 per cent of all the food produced in Europe. In the UK alone in 2008, consumers threw away a third of the country’s entire food supply.

To put this into perspective, the amount of food that western nations donated as aid to poor countries in 2008 was 6.3 million tonnes, which is less than a tenth of the food UK consumers toss out each year.

Julian Carroll proposed that development and aid agencies should help countries to develop their packaging infrastructure: “Money for this can and should be found from the food aid budgets. Buying packaging instead of food may sound callous to some, but packaging stands in the same relation to food security as the sewerage system stands to health. Proper sewerage has done more to extend life expectancy than all the miracles of modern medicine.

“Likewise, decent packaging is likely to generate more available food than the miracles of biotechnology. We cannot afford not to use it.”

The fact that Julian Carroll was even invited to present a paper at the FAO conference was possibly a milestone. As he commented, like Cinderella, packaging had finally been invited to the ball.

But was he singing an old song? One that in our youth we packaging people sang along with Bob Geldof during Band Aid and Live Aid in the 1980s and raised $283 million for famine relief in Ethiopia.

Fifteen years later, I was in Manila and the then World Packaging Organisation president, Raul C Hernandez, sang from the same sheet when he told me: “The FAO is warning that there will be a global food shortage by 2020 – but that’s nonsense,” adding with a grin, “There will be plenty of food, but just in all the wrong places. The solution is packaging.”

That was in 1999. Another 13 years have passed and the famine has moved on to Somalia. Maybe we are just dancing in the dark.


View Julian Carroll's full presentation at the Save Food conference:-

Untitled from Packwebasia on Vimeo.

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