Welcome everyone to this episode in which we explore the topic of Food Loss and Waste. This is an important issue and is linked to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 12 or SDG 12 which is about Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns. I am delighted to have Yota with me today to help with this topic.
Welcome everybody, food waste is a huge issue in many countries and if we aim to do more and better with less as SDG 12 encourages us to, then we really need to address the volume of food that is wasted everyday. Firstly, let’s consider where food waste occurs. In any industry there is a supply chain which is a system of organizations, people, activities, information, and resources involved in transforming natural resources or raw materials into finished products for the end consumer. In the food industry there are four main stages in the chain – starting with the farmer producing crops or animals, then the processing system, to the retail shops and onto us – the consumers. The consumer level would include food eaten at home and also in restaurants and cafés. At each stage there is waste. The SDG 12 includes a specific food waste reduction target. This goal is to cut the global food waste per person at the retail and consumer levels by fifty percent by 2030. This is an ambitious target.
Under the UN’s Save Food initiative, the stakeholders have agreed the following definition of food loss and waste. Food loss is the decrease in quantity or quality of food and takes place mainly at the production, harvesting, processing and distribution stages of the chain. Food waste (which is a component of food loss) is any removal from the supply chain of food which is or, was at some time, fit for human consumption. Most food waste happens at the retail and consumer end of the supply chain.
According to a 2011 study by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (the FAO) global food loss and waste amounts to one-third of all food produced. And this is at a time when the global population is growing and putting a huge strain on the existing food supplies, ecosystems and species. Furthermore, it is estimated that over 700 million people suffer chronic food shortages.
At the production and processing end of the supply chain there are several causes of food loss and waste. There is the damage caused by insects, rodents, birds and microbes which can reduce the harvest yields dramatically . Also, of course there are adverse weather conditions which may be amplified by climate change. Poor farming practices can cause loss and damage to harvested foods. Lower economic returns for the farmer on the quantities produced can mean that edible foods remain unharvested. The various state regulations and commercial legal agreements can create economic pressures that result in food being wasted. Produce that is damaged or is the wrong shape or size is often rejected by the retailers and so may be wasted. All in all we have designed a commercial system which seems to make food waste inevitable.
So what are the main causes of Food Waste at the retailer and consumer end of the chain? Food advertising encourages unnecessary purchases. This is a business decision to encourage sales and is especially noticeable around festive seasons. The consumer’s decision to purchase too much food, perhaps encouraged by special offers is another problem. A very common issue is that we prepare too much food for the plate which results in unfinished meals or leftovers. The word Shelf life refers to the length of time that a commodity may be stored without becoming unfit for use, consumption, or sale. Allied to this is the food labelling system that is used on most food items such as Best before, Use by and Sell by dates. These dates were supposed to bring clarity to the consumer but research shows they are the cause of a lot of waste because consumers misunderstand the meanings of the different labels. The ‘Use by’ date is aimed at consumers to let them know when a product should be used to be at its best quality. The ‘Sell by’ date is for retailers to indicate by which date the product should be removed from sale. Typically, one-third of the products useable life is left after the sell by date. The best by, or best before date indicates to consumers when the product is at its best quality. Many consumers are now so unsure of their own ability to judge the quality of food they decide solely by these date indicators. Finally, Spoilage is another issue and this refers to food that has deteriorated to a point where it is no longer edible. Obviously, all food can deteriorate but those that are especially prone to do so – such as dairy, fruits and vegetables – are referred to as perishable and when deterioration occurs the food can be said to have ‘gone off’.
The amount of food waste across all sectors of the supply chain has considerable effect on the environment. According to the FAO approximately 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land and freshwater used globally goes to produce food that is never consumed as intended. Similar figures apply to the energy used in food production. This represents an enormous waste of these resources and has severe environmental consequences contributing hugely to climate change.
So what are some of the initiatives being used to tackle food waste? Building awareness and giving consumers information can help alter behaviours such as the Love Food Hate Waste campaign in the UK has clearly shown.
Smart packaging, using sensitive inks, plastics and gels, is now being used which can indicate when food is spoiled more precisely than the use-by/sell-by labelling system.
Food rescue is the term used to describe the practice of using edible surplus or waste food from restaurants, stores and markets and distributing it through charitable or emergency food programmes. The terms food recovery or food salvage are also used. This practice is now being supported by many businesses and has the added benefits of reducing the waste going to landfill and also the costs to the businesses. Organisations that facilitate this process are often called food banks. A more informal individual practice is when people go through the waste containers at the rear of businesses looking for perfectly good food which is being thrown away. This practice is called dumpster diving and the individuals involved are sometimes referred to as freegans.
Alternative markets are being developed for food where consumers are encouraged to be more curious and informed about their food choices. Movements such as farmers’ markets are becoming common where producers sell directly to consumers in a more engaging and interactive manner. Here one can find different shaped produce, old varieties of fruits and vegetqables of different colours and tastes – not all carrots are long, straight and orange!
Food waste can be bio-degraded by composting and reused to fertilize soil. Composting is the process in which bacteria break down the food waste into simpler organic materials that can then be used in soil. Vermi-composting is the practice of using worms to break down the food which can take place at lower tempatures and is much faster than other types of composting. Municipal authorities in some countries are now organising the collection of food waste to be composted.
The best solution of course is to prevent food loss and waste which requires a change in our individual and collective behaviours. These relatively simple actions could have many social and environmental benefits. We need to design and implement local solutions in our homes, towns and regions to help solve what is a global problem,
That concludes this episode of the series on Food loss and waste which we hope you have found interesting and informative. My thanks to Yota for her help with this episode and to you for listening. We look forward to you joining us for future episodes in the series.