“The Future of Tourism” Interview Series
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the interviews are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or views of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) or any of its employees. The aim of the interviews is to assist with the rapid, robust and responsible rebuilding of the Asia Pacific travel industry.
Every year one third of the world’s food is lost or goes to waste. The Covid-19 crisis has showcased the importance of our food value chain as one of the primary needs and caused major changes in how people buy and consume food with a shift away from restaurants to eating more at home and increased e-commerce deliveries.
During the lockdown, more food has been going to waste throughout the supply chain, especially for the export-oriented agricultural and fishery products. Local markets are not ready to absorb such large volumes of produce, and thus organic waste levels have increased substantially.
Tourism is recognized as the strategic industry to reduce food waste. In order to do so, it is crucial that all sources and amounts of food waste being produced in the tourism industry are properly understood. Although the health crisis will likely outgrow the environmental concerns at the moment, tourism businesses need to rethink investment in responsible recovery addressing key environmental issues including food waste for a more sustainable future.
Daniel Bucher, the Senior Executive Sous Chef at Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park to explore why it is important to tackle food waste during the pandemic, what lessons learned are there for a sustainable recovery and how hospitality and tourism businesses can strengthen their food waste management post Covid-19. (Read/Listen More)
Q: Hello, Daniel! Thank you so much for your time today. We are very excited to have you with PATA in this interview. To start, would you mind introducing a bit about yourself please?
Daniel: Hi everyone! Thank you for having me. I’m originally from Germany, and I have been in Thailand for almost 10 years. I am a trained chef and my day job is currently at the Bangkok Marriott Marquis Queen’s Park, Thailand’s largest five-star hotel. I’ve always been passionate about sustainability and food systems. For me, it’s part of being a chef to think about where food comes from and where it goes after it leaves my kitchen. Since 2016, food waste has also formally become a key topic for me. I am working in several honorary and consulting positions besides my main job. I am a Food Waste Ambassador for UN Environment in Bangkok. I am also a Food Waste Ambassador for the Scholars of Sustenance, which is an active food bank in Bangkok, as well as Phuket and Bali. And finally, I work closely with TCEB Thailand as Food Waste Ambassador and advisor on sustainable food systems. TCEB is the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau, basically the government organization tasked with looking after tourism businesses in Thailand.
Q: With the current situation of the COVID-19 crisis, what are the biggest impacts on your hotel kitchen and restaurants so far?
Daniel: The COVID-19 crisis was completely unexpected. None of us knew what to do and how to react at first. So, there is a lot of questioning and reinventing ourselves. If you know how food systems work and how restaurants become profitable, it’s usually the routine and long-term improvements of processes that make a restaurant profitable, or make a food business work efficiently. Obviously, disruptions like this are always critical in the food sector. So, we had to relook at a lot of processes and continue to do so daily.
The first is hygiene. Most hotels and big scale food operators have already been certified with HACCP or ISO 22000, or a similar hygiene standard prior to the COVID-19 crisis. With the current situation, the hygiene issue has been highlighted in the media and customers are more aware of it. Reinforcing the existing standards, making them more visible and ensuring that customers feel safe are some of the key challenges. However, the need to do more individual packaging is new. And very quickly, this leads to other problems. Plastic is definitely a problem that is now coming back, after years of working on reducing plastic use. The COVID-19 crisis has increased disposable and plastic use massively in all food businesses and food operations. When it comes to food waste, we also have the question of what happens when we have to serve our guests directly, when menus work differently and so on. It’s all about the psychology of selling food including the menu designs and how guests are approached. Also, don’t underestimate the small things – like how important it is when customers walk into a restaurant or bakery and they smell the fresh food. But now, they walk in with a mask on and don’t notice the smell so much. These disruptions and changes have definitely impacted what sells and how we sell it. We have to work on all of this quickly. Regulations keep changing, but we also get better at dealing with those challenges and finding better solutions to provide better experiences for the guests, and guarantee that our food quality is the same or better, but still making the business work somehow.
Q: The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted our food supply chain and the eating habits of many people. Why is it important to care about food and dealing with food waste during this time?
Daniel: I think food is always extremely important. We should always deal with food. Now we’re dealing with a virus infection, not too different from a flu infection or other similar virus infections. For me, there’s no question that your immune system and your physical health can combat quite effectively how susceptible we are to an infection to this virus. Eating is number one when it comes to being healthy or having a healthy immune system. I think we still underestimate and often have wrong information about what makes us healthy. We’ve adapted the belief that we can just eat whatever we want and then we take some medication when we get sick. In fact, you literally are what you eat when it comes to your immune system and health. So, eating is very important, first and foremost, to keep us healthy, keep us fit, and keep us resistant against any threats, including this virus.
But then, it’s also about the mental insecurity for a lot of people. People have been locked up at home for a long period of time. And it is often food and family that bring us back together and act as a reminder of what we truly value. I think you’ve also seen it a lot on social media over these past months that people have turned to cooking, baking or making things at home to find that emotional stability, security and pleasure; something positive that the current situation was not able to give them. This is a sign of how important food is to our emotional health and how it’s worth caring for.
And then comes the food systems and supply chain. Any disruption is always a threat to how our food systems work. That is because food is traded through so many hands. There is so much happening in terms of refining, value adding or actual cooking processes; from the harvesting of an ingredient to what you actually buy in a supermarket or at a restaurant. There’re many steps in between. Food is traded globally, and food prices are looked at globally. So, any small disruption is already a problem and brings changes of pricing, profit margins or availability of products. Now, a massive disruption in our system like this actually becomes very visible. In some regions, you’ve seen supermarket shelves empty. At the same time, farmers are throwing away a lot of products that they couldn’t sell anymore because their traditional supply chain suddenly had missing links. Taking for example the farmers that were specialized in growing specific heritage vegetables for high-end restaurants; all of a sudden, all restaurants were closed and they could not sell their produce. All these disruptions lead to waste as well as lots of product that cannot be used.
On the other hand, they lead to shortage of products that are maybe needed. But these problems are not specific to the COVID-19 crisis; this is happening all the time. Food is wasted because of supply and demand issues or supply chain issues or trading issues. All the time, we’re throwing away food which is perfectly fine to eat, simply because the logistics don’t work as efficiently as we want them to or just because the demand changes. Another food is trending or a food type or brand gets a bad review in the media and no one wants to buy it anymore. These things happen constantly. What we see now is just a bigger magnitude. It hit supply chains hard enough to make it visible to all consumers. And this should be a warning sign indicating that the food waste issue is worth looking into. We need to improve and understand better how food is traded and where it gets lost. I hope in the public perception, we will not just forget about it after the crisis is gone and things seem back to normal. This problem is a continuous problem that we are facing in our food systems.
Q: Despite all the challenges, do you see any opportunities from the COVID-19 crisis to tackle food waste, particularly in hospitality and tourism industry?
Daniel: I’ve been in a lot of zoom calls and meetings over the last months. There have been lots of discussion in the sustainability realm. Some people are really hopeful because they believe that big disruptions can lead to powerful change. We can rebuild, and this time we’ll make sustainability the big agenda. Our job is to keep the sustainability topics alive, like food waste, plastic waste and so on.
But I think it’s illusional to believe that everything’s going to be much better because the reality is hitting our economy hard. In the business world, there is still the perception that sustainability is nice to have but not a business essential. And as long as that’s the case, it’s a hard sell. Perhaps the exceptions are businesses that really define themselves through sustainability. The opportunity here is really about the changes in consumer behaviors, which allows businesses to position themselves in the market. One of the biggest problems to change consumer behavior is always habits, and it’s very hard to push someone out of their comfort zone to do something differently. Now, the COVID-19 has pushed everyone out of their comfort zone. So, at the end of the day, it’s really up to consumers what businesses come out strong, and whether consumers will continue the ‘buy local and buy sustainable narrative’. Then those businesses will probably do better than others.
I also want to quickly talk a little more about food waste. People might still be unaware of the fact that up to one third of all food that’s produced globally actually ends up in a bin and ultimately a landfill. This number is debated, and there are different views. The reason why the number is debated is because it is very hard to measure. Normally, the way we trade food, what goes in the bin has been paid for and therefore, isn’t measured. You can measure household waste as a whole, but you can only estimate what percentage of that is food waste. In Thailand, the current number that we’re going with is between 70 and 80% of the household waste is food. So, a big amount of all waste is food. This ratio is different in other countries depending on what systems are in place for composting and so on. In general, we can say that a huge portion of our waste is food.
Food lands in the bin due to many different factors along the path of trading food. When we imagine food systems, we often think the milk comes from a farm, it goes in a bottle, it comes to me and I drink it. The reality is more complicated than that. There’re a lot of steps between farming and consumption. At every step, there are processes like quality control or sorting. It means that there is loss at every step.
In addition to that, you have the demand and supply problems that we’ve talked about before. Even with 100% predictable demand, which we never have in food systems; but even if you had that, it’d still be difficult to trade food without losses because food has very short shelf life. With the add-on of change in demand, every loss is multiplied by a factor. When you purchase food at the supermarket or you buy something in the restaurant, you’re not only buying the 500 grams of beef that you actually pick up and put in your trolley, but you are also purchasing a lot of waste that has been generated along the way. You take your beef home, leave it in the fridge and you don’t eat it because it smells bad after three days, you will throw it in the bin. You have now not only wasted the resources of raising the cattle, but also the resources of all the supply chains and consequently, additional loss along the way.
We are used to having a lot of food being constantly available and we do not accept if something is out of stock or not available. We all saw the panic in the COVID-19 crisis. When supermarkets didn’t have certain stock items anymore, people panicked and they started to bulk buy and stock up on items, which they are probably never going to eat like canned beans or canned fish. They just overbought because they were panicking. We tend to think that there might not be enough food. This is not the case, there is always more than enough food. It is just very difficult to fix the supply chain issues when they are occurring so suddenly. All of the wasted food is terrible in many different ways. Firstly, a lot of good resources go into it like fresh water, energy or land use; these are all wasted with the food being wasted. In addition to that, food ending up in the landfill releases methane gases. This process also contributes massively to greenhouse gas emissions. It’s basically a double loss as we lose on the input side and on the output side; plus, we lose a multiplying factor of the actual quantities we’re losing. Any food, even just 10 grams of food that isn’t wasted, has a dramatic effect on making our global food systems more efficient and more sustainable.
Q: In your opinion, how can hotels, restaurants and the food and beverage businesses manage food waste more sustainably, especially with the cases of smaller scale businesses?
Daniel: I think the first thing we need to do as a business is to take this very seriously. We need to admit that it is a serious problem. Every time I talk with a restaurant owner a business owner or a chef, the first answer is: “No, we don’t have a problem with food waste in my business!” Generally, it is not accepted that food waste is a problem that every restaurant has. But the sentiment here is “you’re trying to blame me for food waste”, so there is no food waste problem. It’s crucial to realize that every food business has this problem. Don’t feel like you’re singled out or you are being blamed for something. It is a global systemic problem. It’s not the problem of one or two people doing something wrong. In fact, it’s everyone that is doing something wrong. Producers, distributors and traders, businesses and consumers alike! One or two people doing something right can already have an impact on making it better. So, to look at this differently as a business owner and to be aware of this problem is the first important step.
The next step is to go and look at where you are wasting and how much you’re wasting. You need a system of measuring and recording. It can be as simple as taking photos of your bins or doing daily audits or walk-throughs to check what’s in the bins. In can be as sophisticated as starting a measuring system with expensive technology to measure and record everything you’re wasting. This depends on what size of business you are and how complicated your food operations are. There are different solutions for different kinds of businesses. But if you don’t start to measure and record what you’re wasting and how much you’re wasting; you will not be able to put effective measures in place.
The third step depends on what kind of business you are. There are many different starting points. When I talk to businesses or consult businesses how to tackle food waste, I always recommend them to start with the quick wins so that you can see visible impact and are able to report results quickly. That gives you and your team motivation to keep going. No matter where you start, it is important to keep in mind that the most effective measure is to avoid waste in the first place. When we look at the food waste pyramid to understand where to tackle food waste, the best place to start is right at the top. Not even producing the food, not even purchasing the food, not even making the food that is later wasted has the biggest impact on a more efficient operation, cost and sustainability. If you manage to not purchase the food, you also do not purchase all the waste along the way of it getting to you. But this one is the hardest to do because it is usually rooted deeply in the systems of how we sell, how we produce and how we run our kitchens. But this is the one that ultimately has the biggest impact on businesses, the global food systems and the environment.
When it comes to food waste, the first thing that businesses think of is often composting, or food donation. These are great to look at as best practices, they are great examples, especially food donation, which I think you cannot praise highly enough. It is better if food is eaten by people than being thrown in the bin. Food donation is important; however, it is a diversion mechanism. All you’re doing is looking at the waste you’ve already produced, and then finding new waste streams for it. And while I really encourage every business to do that, I just want to emphasize that what is effective to avoid food waste is not letting it occur in the first place and looking at how you can avoid it. How we do not generate food waste in the first place is the question that really drives me.
I hope this is helpful for many people out there. There are actually a lot of good resources on the internet and also, feel free to reach out and to get help. PATA released the BUFFET toolkit last year, which can provide many helpful tips and tricks. WWF has the Hotel Kitchen project as well as the champions 12.3. If you are looking into this, just look for help, reach out to me or others in this field and there are definitely solutions for you to start low-key and without investment. The problem that I hear a lot is that if you go and reach out to a consultant, they might come back with a hefty investment fee while trying to convince the business that it’s worth it when looking at return on investment. This can be true in some cases. However, for a lot of businesses, it is difficult to get budget approved for tackling food waste, especially during this time of crisis. There are many solutions of how you can start at no cost with some processes you can implement today. And with that, follow the simple steps I’ve outlined before; look at where you’re wasting and what you’re wasting. Then find online resources, reach out to people, call some businesses you’re working with that have a good reputation, and find some help on where and how to start. Anything you do today is a lot better than not doing anything at all!