In this day and age, people tend to buy and consume more than they actually need. Technology, both in production and storage, has allowed us to build up surpluses both in stores and in homes. Take the case of rice. While cheap NFA rice may be in short supply, to the detriment of the poor, Metro Manila stores are flooded with commercial rice. More affluent homes are stocked with grains as well.
In reaction to supply bottlenecks and rising food prices, the government has moved to take out so-called “barriers” to the importation of farm produce, meats, and other agricultural products. This lever pulled deals mainly with supply from abroad. Meantime, the DA has also moved to “import” into Metro Manila surplus farm produce from Mindanao.
I commend both initiatives, which appear to have become necessary to mitigate rising food prices. I am certain there are pros and cons to both efforts, and both will have their share of supporters and critics. But both are short-term moves, more tactical and strategic, and seemingly promotes ensuring supply at whatever cost.
Just to move farm produce from Mindanao to the National Capital Region will cost DA a lot of money. And the initiative is open-ended; there is no certainty as to when farms in Central and Northern Luzon can resume supplying the Luzon market. More than that, the program may not have been originally budgeted for 2018, and this may entail emergency procurement. And we all know how “risky” and “costly” that can be.
As for importing more food, there is also the risk of other things — like illegal drugs — coming along with the farm produce. There were rumors in the past when drugs would allegedly be brought into the country along with imported meat in refrigerated containers. Then there are rice imports, which have been the subject of corruption rumors.
More than these, allowing the entry of imported fish, meat, and other farm produce always leads to issues with local producers and farmers. Moving to protect the interest of consumers is almost always contrary to protecting the interest of farmers. Allowing food industries to import more sugar or substitutes, for instance, always leads to heated arguments between users and producers.
And the most critical factor as to why initiatives like these will always be short term is that farm produce and agricultural products have a limited shelf life. Farm produce are perishable, and unless preserved or stored, supply is also limited by produce life itself. Then supply, whether imported or local, is also subject to seasonality. The weather will always have a say in things.
It is in this line that I hope the government, or even local governments, can consider additional initiatives to help address supply bottlenecks. I believe one way of boosting supply, or at least ensuring sufficiency in supply to a broader market, is to cut down on waste. And, I believe that doing so can go a long way in adequately providing for the needs of both the rich and the poor.
Recall how local governments actually started the initiative to ban plastic bags in supermarkets? Even the ban on the use of plastic utensils and plastic straws is enforced more at the local rather than the national level. In this regard, perhaps there can be local enforcement as well with respect to dealing with excess or surplus produce that cannot be sold by supermarkets.
A 2016 story that appeared in the UK Telegraph, by Helena Horton, narrated how UK supermarkets threw away at least 115,000 tons of “perfectly good food” every year, and how a “food waste” supermarket was opened that year and began working with other supermarkets to put this food to good use.
I took note of this UK project initially after hearing a couple of stories regarding food. One story involves a local farmer in Cavite who goes around collecting food wastes from restaurants in his area. He serves the food businesses’ need for waste disposal, but at the same time gathers practically free but clean and safe food for his livestock.
And then there was this other time when I visited a supposed farmers’ market that was selling lettuce at P400 per kilogram, when the supermarket right beside it was selling an entire salad for P300 per kilogram. The farmer brought home his unsold lettuce, and presumably fed it to his pigs. But I am uncertain as to how the supermarket disposed the unsold salad.
My point is, we are wasting food as we are probably just throwing away unsold items. Wasting food has just as much impact on food supply, particularly to the poor, as a shortage. We should deal not only with supply bottlenecks but also unnecessary waste as well. One can only imagine how much unsold food end up in the disposal every day, both from supermarkets and from producers themselves.
The way it works in the UK is that “The Real Junk Food Project” opened its first warehouse in the town of Leeds in 2016, and the warehouse served as a “food waste supermarket.” The poor or “the needy can take food which would otherwise have been thrown in the bin.” The project, to ensure supply, forged deals with chain supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Ocado. It also works with local cafés, food banks, and caterers.
The Horton story also noted the following: people are expected to pay what they can afford, or can donate their time in volunteering for the project instead; food past expiration date are rechecked if they are still fit for human consumption; and food also get sent to partner cafés and restaurants, which cook them and sell the cooked food also to the needy.
Also, in 2016, France became the first country in the world to ban supermarkets from wasting food. Under a French law passed that year, supermarkets were prohibited from throwing away or disposing food that were nearing their best-before dates. Such food must instead be donated to charities and food banks, where they could be used to produce meals for the poor.
Supermarkets that violated the ban could be fined, and their owners or corporate officers could be jailed. Supermarkets with a footprint of 400 square meters or more are made to sign donation contracts with charities, or face a penalty. Food banks and charities, in turn, were obliged to collect and stock the food in properly hygienic conditions and distribute them. Food industries were also encouraged to give excess products directly to food banks from factories.
I believe similar initiatives can actually be done locally, even initially in places like Makati, Alabang, San Juan, and Quezon City. Of course, safeguards are needed to ensure that those availing themselves of cheap food are actually consuming them and not selling them. Limits can be set. The project can be led by the private sector or local governments themselves.
The local government can take the lead in a “feeding” program that will prioritize the poor as well as seniors. Idle government land or buildings can be turned into temporary stores or weekly “tiangges,” and the logistics of picking up and delivering food can be outsourced to local logistics companies in exchange for local tax breaks.
An option is for big corporations, particularly food companies, can support by making the food project part of their CSR activities. They can sponsor regular food events or food sale, and lend their expertise in using technology to better store and prepare food in affordable manner. Excess food can also be donated as animal feed, while those unfit for consumption can be composted and turned into farm fertilizer.
There are ways of doing these things, if only there is a will to actually do them. An integrated food-farm feed project that focuses on limiting retail waste, and “recycling” food that will otherwise become garbage, can go a long way in providing for the needs particularly of the poor in these uncertain times.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council