It’s a chilly December evening in Tokyo and chef Noriyuki Suzuki, of restaurant Sakanoura Rojitei Yasaito, is presenting curious onlookers with an array of unexpected ingredients, whipping up a nine-course tasting menu out of leftovers such potato peelings and forlorn-looking pineapple skins.
The event was organized by ByFood, a platform that promotes Japanese food experiences, and marks the first in a forthcoming series aiming to spark a discussion about food waste in Japan. Despite the renowned concept of mottainai, which represents a “waste not, want not” attitude, according to the agriculture ministry, over 6.5 million tons of food in Japan go to waste every year. As part of a drive to work toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the Diet passed the Act on Promotion of Food Loss and Waste Reduction, which came into effect in 2019. It requires municipal governments to take measures toward reducing waste, but stops short of laying out specifics.
On the supply side, one long-standing commercial practice that has received heavy criticism across the board is the so-called one-third rule, which requires food manufacturers to deliver food in the first third of the time between a food’s production and its expiration date, resulting in many items being discarded or sent back. According to government data, 33% of annual food loss occurs before the produce even reaches kitchens. Restaurants account for a further 21%, and the remaining 46% occurs through household waste.
Miica Fran, a food creator who ran an experimental zero-waste kitchen in Tokyo last year, says Japan lacks education on topics of sustainability. “In general, people aren’t interested (in food loss). Why? When they go to the supermarket, food is always there. They haven’t experienced it not being there. I was the same. I didn’t think about it.”
Yet there are signs that attitudes are shifting, and the recent disruption is accelerating this trend. In early 2020, COVID-19 sent shockwaves ricocheting through every level of the supply chain. Businesses, including many restaurants, were forced to close and people were asked to stay home. Producers faced a vanishing market. Moreover, the sudden announcement that schools were to be closed through March left suppliers with ingredients for millions of school meals that would never be served.
“I started working from home in February and watching more TV. I saw that producers were really struggling,” says Shoin Shin, CEO of InSync, a company that runs a price comparison service and creates animation videos. “That’s when I thought about a system that could directly connect producers and consumers.”
By May, Shin had launched Wakeari, a service where those with surplus stock could directly list their produce at discounted prices. A similar organization called Facebook Corona Shien — Wakeari Shohin Joho Group had already sprung to life online, where producers were posting photos of both their products and faces, making heartfelt appeals. “It has been 86 years since our company was founded,” wrote one chicken producer in Kyoto Prefecture. “We have nowhere to sell the chicken. It is very painful that the chickens we have carefully raised will be discarded without being eaten.”
The general public responded, with the group growing to more than 360,000 members, buying up items from luxury beef to seaweed. Recognizing the two services’ common goals, and that the Facebook group had no online ordering platform, Shin proposed collaborating. In October, the two groups formally merged, and WakeAi was incorporated this January.
Although born from the desire to support producers, WakeAi now receives enquiries from large food product manufacturers for future collaborations to prevent stock going to waste. This January, the site trialed an online food bank, sending provisions to 200 single-parent households. Shin plans to expand this system, backed by companies looking to position themselves as socially responsible corporations.
With the pandemic highlighting the need for greater efficiency and flexibility within the food supply chain, WakeAi is one of several in-demand e-commerce sites. Before the pandemic many producers were relying on business-to-business models, but since then they’ve needed to pivot and reach customers directly. Pocket Marche, a website that allows people to directly buy seasonal produce and talk with sellers, saw the number of registered producers almost double from the end of February to Dec. 21, 2020, with numbers of registered buyers rising almost fivefold.
For bars and restaurants, the pandemic sparked a rush to delivery apps like Uber Eats and Demae-can, resulting in long backlogs to get registered and approved. “(Bars and restaurants) didn’t know what to do,” says Taichi Isaku, co-founder of CoCooking, which runs Tabete, an app that allows users to cheaply purchase meals about to be thrown out. “So they came to our service to see what else they can do to upsell their food and reduce their waste.”
Isaku says that this shift to delivery or takeout has led many stores to limit their menus, minimizing the effects of uncertainty of demand and cutting down on surplus meals. However, the most important shift has been in mindset. “Before the pandemic, food waste was part of their business, it was incorporated into their business model,” he says. “But then that kind of style collapsed with people gone from the cities. So their thoughts toward food waste shifted to thinking about how they can make more profit out of this.”
As Japan battles a third wave of COVID-19, the disruption of the food supply chain has highlighted new possibilities. The big question is whether this momentum will continue once the coronavirus passes. Isaku is confident that it will, not only due to the normalization of delivery and takeout, but also because the food industry has been forced to start using and adapting to technology.
Moreover, he adds, overall awareness of food waste is growing, and people want to support eco-conscious businesses. “Many people are aware of food waste and want to reduce it, but it is difficult on a daily basis. We need to build a way for consumers to choose ethically, and make that choice natural,” he says.
Human connection is key for generating long-lasting support. Pocket Marche predicates its business model on communication between buyers and producers. Even pre-pandemic, a company survey of 300 consumers found that 64.3% reported less food waste at home after they started using the service. “Consumers have a relationship with the farmers, so they don’t want to waste things,” says COO Mikio Yamaguchi. “Our biggest mission is not just food. We want to break the invisible wall between people engaged in the Japanese food system and those who are not.”
This increase in transparency is also underscoring the need to more accurately match supply and demand. Pocket Marche has a bold vision for a decentralized food system. “We need to grow our user base first,” Yamaguchi says. “But then we want to make an online community network, attached to the best supply chain within each area.” The goal is to pair a thriving online marketplace with regional supply networks and farmers markets.
The notion that large-scale centralized systems are automatically efficient is a dogma that has epitomized the modern epoch. Yet, as a shift towards sustainability becomes more pressing, other voices are calling for a change in mindset. Rumi Ide, a journalist who specializes in food loss and waste issues, argues in her book, “A Lifestyle Based on What We Have,” that we are already seeing a transition from a society based on large-scale production, selling, consumption and disposal to a world in which we rely on resources we already have.
The disruption caused by the pandemic has given consumers a glimpse into the wider food supply chain, while simultaneously spotlighting our own behavior at home. Transitioning toward sustainability will undoubtedly necessitate action on the macro- and microscales. With this mindset, menu planning with a plate of potato peelings or pineapple skins suddenly seems less a curious novelty but more a credible — or even an essential — approach.
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