Take the “Target, Measure, Act” approach to reduce food waste? Yes, but be pragmatic about it

Published on
July 25, 2022

To effectively reduce food waste and monitor progress, it is important that it is measured and quantified. This is often called the “Target, Measure, Act” approach. However, good, recent data is often unavailable, and it costs time and money to collect it. In a new method by Wageningen University & Research, the focus is not on measuring, but on finding the causes of waste and taking appropriate action.

Using the method, the EFFICIENT1 Protocol, companies, organisations, students, and other interested parties can go through a process in a short time to find out where food waste is occurring, what causes it, and what interventions are appropriate. According to the research associates and authors of the report, this is important as it avoids having to wait for data and insights before taking action to reduce waste.

Research associate Joost Snels tells us that measuring is certainly useful and insight is very valuable, but it is not always needed to arrive at a solution. “Sometimes, an estimate based on expert knowledge is sufficient. And sometimes the data are already there. With this method you will talk to experts and people in the field to establish estimates to find the problem areas (“hotspots”). You only measure when it is difficult to pinpoint the hotspots. Once the hotspots have been determined, you can then focus on identifying the causes of food waste and determine the actions to be taken. If necessary, you can then measure the waste at a hotspot to estimate whether an intervention is feasible.”

In this way, you collect additional data during the intervention, which is also very valuable for monitoring your progress. All this ensures that there is no need to invest time and resources in data research from the start. Instead, the focus is on cost savings and economic benefits, by directly combating waste in the right way and at the right place in your process, company, or chain.

Database full of causes

The first stages of the new method help to set the context and visualise the chain. Snels: “Say that you are selling rice. The system will then visualise the rice chain and can suggest up to 40 causes of food waste that have come to light in the past. It will then provide a roadmap for consulting with experts, stakeholders, and people in the field. The latter is important in order to really identify the correct causes. In the interim phase, the decision could be made to take measurements (on a smaller scale), if necessary. WUR has built an intelligent tool for the final phases. This tool is a database full of knowledge and experience and allows you to click through to proven interventions that can help reduce the cause of food waste.

Melanie Kok, research associate at WUR, is currently using the EFFICIENT Protocol in Bangladesh for a project that aims to improve the food system in Dhaka. “Companies come to us and say they want to monitor and measure food waste, but they don't know where to begin. We start the process with the help of the EFFICIENT Protocol. With this method, they can pinpoint where value is lost. The structure is great; it ensures that you do not forget anything.” Kok, co-author of the report, stresses that the economic playing field and trade relations have been taken into consideration. “It is necessary to take the cost aspect into account, as this will make it more likely that companies will take action. Reducing environmental impact can also be a motivation for starting down this road.”

The protocol is well suited to detecting losses and problems at the beginning of the chain, often in developing countries. But the protocol can also be applied in the Netherlands, for retailers as well as importers and other parties at the end of the chain. Research associate Jan Broeze tells us that not everyone understands how their chain works. “Say that a supermarket receives the numbers for a reduced supplies of mangoes. Often, the importers do not know what exactly caused it either. A lot of production has been moved to other countries and can’t be seen. With this method, you will learn more about all your partners and where you can make the chain more sustainable by reducing waste together.”

Towards action

Broeze emphasises that there are already many good protocols and methods to reduce food waste. “We are building onto it. The key is that this protocol is more about action and less about only measuring. A lot of monitoring has been done, but it does not necessarily lead to concrete changes. You see this happening at the national level, where many things are lumped together. The protocol looks at one chain, what actions can be taken there, and what the consequences are.”

According to Kok, things sometimes get mixed up in other methods. “There are certainly other protocols that also identify actions, but they are not always linked to the correct cause. It often remains somewhat general. How do you arrive at the appropriate intervention? That is important.” Snels believes that the new protocol will lead to a reduction in food waste, especially in developing countries. “And that is essential, since we are aiming to halve food waste by 2030. We must now move beyond recording and measuring and take impactful actions that can be scaled up rapidly. Want to measure and record 18.4% loss exactly? That causes delays.”

The first part of the EFFICIENT Protocol can be downloaded free of charge already; the intelligent tool is still under lock and key.

1 EFFectIve food Chain IntervENTion protocol