World-Watching: Small Business and Food Waste: Not a Small Problem

[from APEC News]

by Aaron Sydor

Faced with a possible food crisis, economies must work together and take action on food waste … starting at the front line with MSMEs.

Conflict, supply disruption, rising prices, and shortages are all impacting food supplies globally. Just as we are nearing some form of recovery from the pandemic, we are now facing another global challenge in the form of a food crisis – and it’s likely to get worse.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) tells us that 349 million people face acute food insecurity this year — an increase from 287 million people in 2021. It is a tragedy that when the world is “hungrier than ever,” as the WFP calls it, so much food goes to waste. One-third of food production, or 1.3 billion tons per year, goes to waste globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. It is inconceivable, then, that we don’t make the most of the food that we have.

This is a regional problem that cannot be solved by individual economies acting on their own. It must be looked at with a wider lens, such as through bodies, like APEC, that promote regional economic cooperation. APEC members acknowledge that all areas of the agri-food value chain are interdependent and that there is a need for a whole-system approach.

Among the forum’s efforts to reduce food waste is the Food Security Roadmap Towards 2030 which aims to establish an open, fair, transparent, productive, sustainable and resilient APEC food system. This corresponds to the UN and other multilateral goals by taking action through the following avenues: digital transformation; productivity and international trade; sustainability; public-private partnerships; and inclusivity, especially in the inclusion of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) along the agri-food value chain.

For more on this topic, download “Enhancing Green MSMEs’ Competitiveness for a Sustainable and Inclusive Asia-Pacific: Food Sector Waste Reduction in Food Supply Chain.” [Archived PDF]

In my capacity as the Chair of APEC’s Small and Medium Enterprises Working Group, I’d like to stress the importance of the latter: inclusivity and small business. MSMEs account for over 97 percent of all business in APEC economies and employ over half of the workforce. Any strategy for reducing food wastage will have to involve the wholesale participation of the region’s smaller businesses.

This is easier written than done. For one thing, fit-for-purpose data is scarce. No APEC economy has food waste data that is specific to MSMEs. And while all have policies and measures to address the problem of food waste, there are no large-scale direct MSMEfood waste reduction targets, policies or plans. Few have tried to reduce MSME food waste in the retail food and food service industries. Supermarkets, food storage facilities or warehouses in many APEC economies aren’t required to donate excesses.

Most entrepreneurs aren’t even aware of the problem, or underestimate its true cost. Those who do understand have limited options or capital, and are unable to find cost-effective solutions to create value out of food waste, and face problems with logistics and transportation. On top of this, there are few to no regulatory frameworks to guide them. From a technology perspective, a majority of APEC economies utilize modern technologies, including mobile applications, to reduce or manage MSME food waste/surplus food, but these modern technologies are used only by large companies in big cities.

Amid these challenges are an abundance of opportunities to help MSMEs reduce food waste. Training, policies and guidelines can aid them in improving profits by reducing costs and increasing the value added of food. They can reduce their carbon footprint, which enhances consumer demand, and divert waste to new products or bioenergy.

A November study by the APEC Small and Medium Enterprises Working Group presents case studies, identifies the best available data on food waste for MSMEs, and identifies several best practices for economies in dealing with food waste through MSME policy.

In one section, the study’s authors analyze a case study of a successful MSME, and identify four key factors contributing to its successful reduction of food waste: 1) creating a network of people — e.g., a community surrounding a farm; 2) using innovation and technology to facilitate farming and save time; 3) producing knowledge and providing it through several channels — e.g., a learning and training center, friendly guide books; and 4) considering the environment at every step of the process.

The paper, called “Enhancing Green MSMEs’ Competitiveness for a Sustainable and Inclusive Asia-Pacific: Food Sector Waste Reduction in Food Supply Chain,” [Archived PDF] is extensive and easily doubles as a handbook for anyone interested in MSME food waste, or the problem of food waste in general. It is a great example of what can be achieved when economies combine knowledge and resources in the pursuit of keeping the region inclusive, prosperous, and fed.

Aaron Sydor is the Chair of the APEC Small and Medium Enterprises Working Group.

Education and the “Knowability” Problem

There was a wonderful PBS Nature episode in 2006 called “The Queen of Trees” [full video, YouTube] which went into details about the survival strategy and rhythms and interactions with the environment of one tree in Africa and all the complexities this involves:

This Nature episode explores the evolution of a fig tree in Africa and its only pollinator, the fig wasp. This film takes us through a journey of intertwining relationships. It shows how the fig (queen) tree is life sustaining for an entire range of species, from plants, to insects, to other animals and even mammals. These other species are in turn life-sustaining to the fig tree itself. It could not survive without the interaction of all these different creatures and the various functions they perform. This is one of the single greatest documented (on video) examples of the wonders of our natural world; the intricacies involved for survival and ensuring the perpetual existence of species.

It shows us how fragile the balance is between survival and extinction.

One can begin to see that the tree/animal/bacteria/season/roots/climate interaction is highly complex and not quite fully understood to this day.

The fact that one tree yields new information every time we probe into it gives you a “meta” (i.e., meta-intelligent) clue that final theories of the cosmos and fully unified theories of physics will be elusive at best and unreachable at worst. If one can hardly pin down the workings of a single tree, does it sound plausible that “everything that is” from the electron to galaxy clusters to multiverses will be captured by an equation? The objective answer has to be: not particularly.

Think of the quest of the great unifiers like the great philosopherphysicist Hermann Weyl (died in 1955, like Einstein):

Since the 19th century, some physicists, notably Albert Einstein, have attempted to develop a single theoretical framework that can account for all the fundamental forces of nature–a unified field theory. Classical unified field theories are attempts to create a unified field theory based on classical physics. In particular, unification of gravitation and electromagnetism was actively pursued by several physicists and mathematicians in the years between the two World Wars. This work spurred the purely mathematical development of differential geometry.

Hermann Klaus Hugo Weyl (9 November, 1885 – 8 December, 1955) was a German mathematician, theoretical physicist and philosopher. Although much of his working life was spent in Zürich, Switzerland and then Princeton, New Jersey, he is associated with the University of Göttingen tradition of mathematics, represented by David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski.

His research has had major significance for theoretical physics as well as purely mathematical disciplines including number theory. He was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and an important member of the Institute for Advanced Study during its early years.

Weyl published technical and some general works on space, time, matter, philosophy, logic, symmetry and the history of mathematics. He was one of the first to conceive of combining general relativity with the laws of electromagnetism. While no mathematician of his generation aspired to the “universalism” of Henri Poincaré or Hilbert, Weyl came as close as anyone.

Weyl is quoted as saying:

“I am bold enough to believe that the whole of physical phenomena may be derived from one single universal world-law of the greatest mathematical simplicity.”

(The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, page 46)

This reminds one of Stephen Hawking’s credo that he repeated often and without wavering, that the rational human mind would soon understand “the mind of God.”

This WeylHawkingEinstein program of “knowing the mind of God” via a world-equation seems both extremely charming and beautiful, as a human quest, but potentially mono-maniacal à la Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. The reason that only Ishmael survives the sinking of the ship, the Pequod, is that he has become non-monomaniacal and accepts the variegatedness of the world and thus achieves a more moderate view of human existence and its limits. “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in the novel gives you Melville’s sense (from 1851) of the unknowability of some final world-reality or world-theory or world-equation.