It’s 6.30am. You shower, dress and open the fridge to get some breakfast. You grab the yogurt, realise it has passed its use-by date and throw it out. Glancing at your watch, you quickly prepare the kids lunchboxes, knowing most of its content will return uneaten. Rushing out the door, you avoid an overflowing street bin and catch a glimpse of an advertisement reminding you of the millions of starving people who need the food you have just seen wasted. Sound familiar?
Often food waste is thought of in the context of world hunger, but it is much bigger than that. It is an economic, environmental and social challenge. Not only does throwing away perfectly good food mean the food itself is wasted (including the nutritional and societal opportunity costs of not providing the food to those in need) there is a second and often overlooked problem; the wastage of resources that have gone into making the food. This includes water, fuels, fertilisers, transport and packaging along the entirety of the value chain of a food product. It’s an exponential problem.
At present, we waste a shocking 1.3 billion tonnes of food globally each year. Most of it is avoidable.
Addressing waste effectively requires insights into the stages of the food cycle where wastage occurs and this is directly linked to the economic maturity of a market.
In the developing world, food wastage primarily occurs during production, handling and storage. Poor infrastructure and disjointed distribution networks cause the most food wastage in developing countries; often due to poor harvesting and processing techniques and spoiled food due to a lack of transport infrastructure. The proportion (40%) of total food production wasted in the developing world could be addressed through access to temperature controlled supply chain technology and reliable energy sources for crop production, and investment in infrastructure and transport facilities to improve time-to-market and quality control of produce in these areas.
Notable current initiatives such as the World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator (WFP) whose successful and scalable projects include introducing easy-assembly silos for farmers and Promethean Power Systems, an Indian company which has developed a sustainable and affordable refrigeration technology. Government incentives and participation of consumer product companies in these type of initiatives are much needed.
More mature economic markets like Australia see wastage levels peak during distribution and consumption. A combination of poor supply chain practices and consumer behaviour underpins the high levels of food waste. Here, stringent aesthetic standards mean ‘undesirable’ produce rots at farm-gate, produce with sub-optimal shelf life is abandoned on retail shelves, and large pack sizes drive the excess produce languishing in our fridges, pantries and rubbish bins.
To counter this, governments and retailers have launched public awareness campaigns such as Harris Farm and Woolworths’ ‘ugly produce’, OzHarvest’s and SecondBite’s food rescue and the UK initiative ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ which successfully reduced UK food waste by 18% in five years. The French government has gone as far as adopting a law to crack down on food waste and has banned supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, which they must instead donate to charities or for animal feed.
Whilst great work is being done in this area, there is still a long way to go to reduce food waste. Consumers, retailers, consumer product companies and governments can all contribute and collectively address the epidemic of wasted food and bridge the divide.
Our choices – through action or inaction – will determine our path.
Note: The Deloitte and WEF study, Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis, explored various likely scenarios based on consumption and market connectedness. It looks into ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘where’ food will be produced and consumed including the possible implications on economic development, sector configuration, network risks, inequality, hunger, poverty and climate change. This blog is part of a series on the Future of Food.