As global affluence increases, food and food security are increasingly taken for granted. Farmers discard “ugly” food that they are unable to sell, supermarkets and food outlets bin the leftovers that consumers are unable to finish, and, of course, consumers order way too much. The situation has grown to such an extent that food waste now ranks amongst the most pressing global challenges – and contributes significantly to climate change.
What is Food Waste?
Food waste is the removal of food from the supply chain. It could have been fit for consumption or spoilt, and is mainly caused by economic behaviour, poor stock management, and neglect. Globally, 1/3 of food that is produced (about 1.3 billion tonnes of food) is discarded before it can be eaten. If even 1/4 of this loss could be saved, it could feed about 870 million hungry people in the world. This loss of food happens all through the food supply chain as summarised in the table below, covering the whole gamut of activities starting from production till consumption.
Where is Food Wasted?
Food loss and food waste differ from region to region globally. In developed regions, such as Europe and North America, food waste is often seen at the consumption stage. More than 50% of food is wasted near the fork, because food is just not valued as highly in such affluent regions. In North America and Oceania alone, 42% of food available is lost or wasted, and more than 60% of this is wasted by consumers.
This is in stark contrast to areas such as Sub-Saharan African and South and and Southeast Asia, where the bulk of the food loss is at the production, handling, and storage stages. To begin with, crops are “discarded post-harvest for not meeting cosmetic standards” – in other words food is just frivolously being thrown away for not being “pretty” enough to be eaten. Because food losses near the farm are predominant, it can affect the ability of farmers to make a good living, resulting in lesser young people wanting to go into farming. This, again affects the global food supply chain, and can only get worse with rates of food waste going up, and rates of food production going down an average of 2% every decade. The difference in perspective on the value of food can be seen from how per capita food wasted in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg/year, but only 6-11 kg/year in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia.
Needless to say, the three main culprits are 1) Supermarkets, 2) Food Services, and 3) Consumers. Farmers are forced to reject “ugly” food because supermarkets will not accept them, food service operators like restaurants, hotels and food centres throw away food that they are unable to sell, and consumers will not even bat an eyelid chucking away their half-eaten meals.
Impact of Food Waste
Ignoring the fact that the food wastage could feed hundreds of millions of hungry mouths, food loss has a huge strain on the environment. Food that is harvested but ultimately lost or wasted consumes about one-quarter of all water used by agriculture each year . Worse still, if food waste were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, generating about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions annually. With COP22, where countries are all trying to reduce the effect of global warming, food still remains the low-hanging fruit that can very easily be leveraged to help meet our emissions goals.
The economic losses that come with food loss is also extremely significant. In just London alone, it is estimated that food waste costs the waste authorities over £50 million per year, and the city’s consumers £1.4 billion per year. Globally, the number is even more astonishing. In developed countries, the economic costs comes up to a whopping US$ 680 billion, and an additional US$ 310 billion in developing countries.
What is being done
With food waste being recognised by many countries and businesses as a pressing issue, there are some efforts being put into place to reduce food loss. The first step in doing so, would be for governments and business to be accountable for their food wastage.
The Food Loss & Waste Protocol (FLW Protocol) is one such example. The FLW protocol is a multi-stakeholder effort to develop the global accounting and reporting standard (known as the FLW Standard) for quantifying food removed from the food supply chain. A wide range of entities – countries, companies and other organisations – have joined to be accountable and report in a credible, practical, and internationally consistent manner on the quantity of food waste created and identify where it occurs, thus enabling the targeted efforts to reduce it.
Another such example is Champions 12.3, which is a “unique coalition of more than three dozen leaders from around the world dedicated to inspiring ambition, mobilising action, and accelerating progress toward achieving SDG Target 12.3” such as Unilever (Paul Polman), Nestle, WRAP, Government, Consumer Goods Forum, WWF and Tristram Stuart. This ambitious target aims to reduce per capita global food waste by 50% by 2030!
Upon establishing accountability for their food wastage, governments are also adopting legislation that put their efforts into law. In February 2016, a legislation was passed whereby French supermarkets are required to donate unsold yet still edible food to charities. The law includes requirements that companies disclose food waste in their corporate social responsibility reporting and that food waste education is included in school curricula. France also passed a new law to ensure all plastic cups, cutlery and plates can be composted and are made of biologically-sourced materials.
This is particularly useful for a charity like WeFood in Denmark, which operates a food waste supermarket that receive donations of food from various suppliers, and then sells them to the consumers at a price that is 30% to 50% cheaper than they would normally cost. This is a triple win situation, where the charity is able to make a profit to fund its operations, consumers get cheaper food, and food wastage is reduced.
Meaningful collaborations that reduce food waste
There are many solutions that currently exist in the market that can help businesses to reduce their food waste. For example, in 2016, Tesco rolled out “Community Food Connection,” which is in collaboration with FareShare, a charity aimed at reducing food waste. In this collaboration, they developed an online application ‘FoodCloud’ which allows charities to be informed of food surplus in various Tesco outlets. The charities will then be able to collect the excess food, to distribute to those in need.
Collaborating with various hotels, Winnow has made use of technology to reduce food waste. Food waste is thrown into bins that are placed on their smart weighing meter technology, and in real-time, staff are shown the value of the items that they have thrown away. They even have reports that are sent to the organisation, to track progress. Their clients include Sofitel in Bangkok as well as the Intercontinental Hotels Group, amongst others.
It is undeniable that the amount of food wasted globally is putting a strain on achieving the various Sustainable Development Goals. Food waste affects SDG 1 – No Poverty, SDG 2 – Zero Hunger, SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production, and SDG 13 – Climate Change, to name a few. With new laws and regulations being put in place to ensure these goals are being met, businesses are beginning to feel the pressure to reduce their food waste. The ones that leverage the many cutting edge solutions to operate on the forefront of this wave stand to reap the biggest long-term benefits.