Talking Food Waste Prevention in Taiwan

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Earlier this month I was fortunate to represent LeanPath in a stimulating global sustainability forum at the Tomorrow Asia 2018 Asia Pacific Social Enterprise Summit in Taichung City, Taiwan.

Recognizing that rapid development in Asia presents several social and environmental challenges, the two-day Summit was organized by several social enterprises in conjunction with the Taichung City government of Taiwan to address how to solve them.  Summit organizers seek to make Taiwan Asia’s social innovation Wikipedia — encouraging Taiwan’s social enterprises to reach out and connect with the world, promoting dialog, exchange, and cooperation among social enterprises in the Asia Pacific region, gathering learnings from social enterprises in other countries, and promoting support for social enterprises in Taiwan and the larger region.

Amid the backdrop of a renovated industrial park filled with social entrepreneurs displaying their innovative ideas and products in “Expo” format, experts from industry, government, and civil society came together to focus on topics within four primary tracks – Food and Agriculture, Aging, Minority Employment, and Environment & Green Energy.  Provocative talks and workshops filled the agenda with an emphasis on solutions, knowledge sharing, and cross-boundary collaboration.

The energy level of the event was inspiring; driven by one thousand participants committed to using technology and innovation to create a more sustainable, inclusive world.  There was a clear feeling that “business as usual” was not an option to solve the many social and environmental challenges faced by Taiwan and Asia and that are so clearly elucidated in the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

And as a UPenn affiliated faculty member I was more than pleased to participate in the Food and Agriculture track with sustainability pioneer (and Philadelphia’s own) Judy Wicks, author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business, who provided many inspiring lessons from her remarkable career.  She is of course the founder of the famous White Dog Cafe — located at the heart of the UPenn campus.  Wicks noted that success in business is about relationships, and that she never liked the “grow or die” mantra because she felt that too much growth would result in a loss of the value of those relationships.  Rather than grow in terms of number of restaurants, she chose to grow deeper in place (in her community).  She also described her early efforts to develop locally-sourced foods for her restaurant, and her realization that to maximize her positive impact for her community and larger region, she should make her supplier lists available to her competition.  It was a courageous, authentic move, one that she initially feared could result in a loss of competitive advantage, and one that was well-received by the social enterprise leaders in the audience.  she expressed her conviction that “there is no such thing as one sustainable business, we can only be part of a sustainable system.”  Ultimately, she pointed to the fact that her success in business stemmed from a commitment to service – service to community, employees, and nature – and recommended that businesses change their measures of success to reflect that we all belong to the same vibrant community of life on Earth.

I followed in a breakout panel on food waste reduction with Zhi-Rong Bai of Taichung City’s Environmental Protection Bureau and Jacob Tan of Buy NearBy – an organization focused on the efficient recovery of excess food.  Zhi Rong-Bai provided an overview of the considerable amount of annual food waste in Taiwan – noting that it is “the equivalent of 1,000 Mount Everests” and enough to feed 250,000 economically disadvantaged families – and he traced the EPB’s many efforts to guide food waste reduction through education, recovery and donation, animal feed processing, and composting.  Taiwan collects a significant amount of consumer plate waste, which is heated, sanitized, and converted to food waste for pigs — which reduces food costs to farmers by two thirds.  It has also provided composting training and developed over 100 voluntary composting sites resulting in tons of compost annually.

Jacob Tan discussed our collective responsibility to turn excess food over to food banks, and Buy Nearby’s efforts to understand where wasted food occurs in order to “flip the supply chain” to maximize efficient food recovery.  Buy Nearby creates matches between those with excess food and those in need, and has been successful in capturing and redistributing large amounts of cosmetically imperfect, but perfectly edible, produce items.

Building on Taiwan’s excellent record of food recovery, where the use of music-playing garbage trucks has helped to create a culture of recycling, I provided a food waste prevention perspective, describing the potential for achieving maximum financial, social, and environmental benefits through source reduction – the portion of the Food Recovery hierarchy that is often overlooked.

Citing food waste levels in Taiwan, the U.S., and across the globe, I noted the critical link between food waste and the Sustainable Development Goals and described the importance of actionable change for food waste prevention to set the world on a path to sustainably feed the planet by 2050.  I also discussed the root causes of food waste in institutional kitchens and the many associated costs (ex. food cost, labor, disposal, lost profit) along with the importance of tracking and measurement to create actionable data for change.  I pointed to the importance of engaging front line kitchen workers in creating a culture of food waste prevention, and the capabilities of LeanPath’s innovative product line – portable tablets, bench top units, and floor scales (and even a customer-messaging platform) – to drive that process through data capture, measurement, and analysis.  Last, I noted the importance of shifting the food waste conversation from recovery to prevention and the need to address systemic overproduction in the food system — a global change effort that simply must occur (and which grows more important with each passing day that brings us closer to 2050).

Like the many social entrepreneurs gathered at Tomorrow Asia, I have long viewed food waste as an opportunity, and I was energized to exchange ideas with all of them on how to achieve our common desire to ensure a sustainable future by eliminating food waste — not just in Taiwan — but in the larger Asia Pacific region and beyond.

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