Commentary: Behind picture-perfect supermarkets in Singapore is looming waste

Commentary: Behind picture-perfect supermarkets in Singapore is looming waste

Food waste in Singapore is a massive problem. Supermarkets should lead the way to fight it, argue two environment experts.

giant supermarket
Shoppers at a supermarket in Singapore. (Photo: TODAY/Don Wong)

SINGAPORE: Singapore is famous for her delicious cuisine yet faces a serious food waste problem.

The amount of food waste generated has increased by 40 per cent in the past decade. In 2016 alone, the National Environment Agency reported a staggering 791,000 tonnes of food waste.

One of the largest contributors of food waste around the world, including Singapore, is the supermarket industry.

It is estimated that over 40 per cent of food waste occurs at production and retail level globally. As some of the most influential players along the food supply chain, supermarkets play a major part in contributing to a culture of waste.


Thankfully, supermarkets are picking up and doing something about this nasty trend in Singapore. NTUC FairPrice reportedly saved 250,000kg of food from being disposed between 2015 and 2016.

While this is encouraging progress, it is also demonstrative of the large amount of waste supermarkets produce, merely chipping away at the vast and complex food wastage problem that extends across other parts of society.

We have also witnessed some green shoots where independent initiatives to redistribute food that would otherwise be disposed or wasted have sprouted up.

Food Bank Singapore, one of the many examples, distributes 60 tonnes of surplus food a month to over 200 charities and feeds over 100,000 people in need.

Another organisation is the charity Food from the Heart, which has a partnership with NTUC FairPrice to collect unsold canned food in good condition for donation to charities and welfare homes.

Such efforts complement initiatives to increase consumers’ sensitivity to sustainability issues through campaigns such as Singapore’s Save Food Cut Waste. The hope is these initiatives combined can push people to be aware of better practices in avoiding food wastage at home.


But there is still more that can be done by supermarkets. In Singapore, food safety concerns and liability to be borne by the supermarkets are big hurdles to redistributing surplus food.

Fear and culpability prohibits supermarkets and companies from donating fresh produce like fruits and vegetables, which account for 60 per cent of all food wasted.

And the heart of the problem is this: So much produce is being wasted because retailers and consumers cannot look past appearances.

Globally, we know that wastage happens before food even reaches the stores, with an estimated 20 per cent produce in farms rejected for cosmetic reasons.

These include carrots that are slightly curved, strawberries that are too large, and cucumbers that are too yellow.

Because they are less than perfect, farmers have no other option than to leave the produce to rot in the fields, which does not only drain valuable resources, but also generates 2.2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas per year, directly contributing to climate change. 

Fruits and vegetables judged ugly by mass market retailers
Fruits and vegetables, which are edible and nutritious but judged ugly by mass market retailers, are pictured as part of a French national day of action against food wastage. (Photo: AFP/Miguel Medina)

Even produce that pass the intense initial vetting must undergo further scrutiny during packaging and processing.

In 2013, the French beans grown for European markets saw a further 15 to 20 per cent waste due to cosmetic filtering, on top of the existing 50 per cent waste. This was because some French beans did not fit requirements – for supermarkets required farmers to nicely fit their beans into the 9cm bags provided.

Back to Singapore, do Singaporeans really need beautiful and beautifully packaged food?

According to a 2016 Electrolux survey, 75 per cent of Singaporeans will consume ugly food if it is as tasty and nutritious as other food. One might speculate that, with safe and clever marketing or creative solutions, the remaining 25 per cent would be willing to try.

For example, NTUC FairPrice has started to sell blemished and bruised produce at a reduced price and repackaged as sliced fruit and vegetables, which appeal to consumers and increases income for the company – a win for all.

A shopping trolley is pushed around a supermarket in London
'Ugly', bruised or misshapen ingredients are a rare sight in Singapore supermarkets. (Photo: Reuters) 


But the scale of the problem demands correspondingly large changes. Supermarket may have to rethink their business models, to incorporate solutions that avoid waste wherever possible.

Redistribution of food through welfare organisations should happen beyond in-store wastage, and on a larger scale up the food supply chain.

Consumer knowledge must be expanded, and mindsets changed, to recognise that blemished food remains safe and nutritious.

As attitudes on the ground change, supporting infrastructure is also key in creating new opportunities to sell these food products.

Online grocery stores have been taking off in Singapore and virtual marketplaces should be expanded to include surplus produce. Surplus food that has been marked down in price can be advertised alongside the other products, and delivered to redistribution charities’ and customers’ doorsteps just like in a conventional purchase.

ntuc fairprice food waste
Under FairPrice's Great Taste Less Waste initiative, fruits and vegetables are repackaged to make them more attractive to consumers. (Photo: TODAY/Wee Teck Hian)


The availability of data will be essential for Singapore to move forward. This includes publishing more elaborate and meaningful data that delves into the nuances of the causes of food waste. This also means that action can then be tailored to each market.

Tesco is an example. The first supermarket in the UK to publish a third-party audited report of food waste throughout its supply chain in 2013, it has used data to form meaningful partnerships to redistribute surplus food.

For instance, Tesco stores upload estimates of their unsold food onto a FareShare FoodCloud app. Then, charities and community groups registered on the app will receive texts detailing the available food, allowing them to pick up the food they need.

Tesco has also pledged not to divert food to landfills, and to ensure no food safe for human consumption will go to waste in 2017.

To do so, it has capitalised on its data to develop comprehensive programmes dealing with all facets of food waste, such as donating bakery surplus to charities, making these into animal feed and converting chicken fat and cooking oil to bio-diesel.

A Tesco supermarket is seen in west London
Britain's online food market is expected to grow by 54 per cent to £16 billion (US$20.3 billion) from 2017 to 2022. (Photo: Reuters)

Detailed data can also inform grassroots initiatives and catalyse social enterprises that target specific forms of food waste. Tesco data that showed how 44 per cent of bread produced in UK is wasted helped launch Toast Ale, which brews craft beer from unsold loaves from bakeries and unused crusts from sandwich makers.

Going back to the example of the French beans, Tesco used to require growers to supply beans within a strictly specified size range and trimmed of their strings. They have since relaxed such requirements following customer feedback, cutting their food waste by 30 per cent overnight.

While individuals may hold less power than supermarkets, the above just goes to show much change can be brought about when people and organisations fix their minds to a problem.

As a consumer, every time you purchase something from the supermarket, you are making a choice and shaping our food system.

With nine out of ten Singaporeans already concerned about food wastage, there is no better time to make your voice heard.

The power to protect Singapore’s food heaven lies in your hands – so talk to your local supermarket today about addressing food waste.

Tristram Stuart is an author, speaker and passionate campaigner on the environmental impact of food waste. He was in Singapore to speak at National Geographic LIVE!, organised in collaboration with NTU and NEA.

Josephine Liang is a sustainability campaigner, project manager and Executive Assistant to Tristram Stuart. She is also co-founder of Grandmas in the Kitchen, a social enterprise that empowers older Bangladeshi woman through providing them with catering opportunities. 

Source: CNA/sl