Dr Liz Goodwin, Senior Fellow and Director, Food Loss and Waste at the World Resources Institute, outlines how to reduce food loss and waste at every stage of the supply chain and the benefits of doing so.
One-third of all food produced globally by weight is lost or wasted between farm and fork — that’s more than 1 billion tonnes. Converted into calories, this equates to 24% of the world’s food supply going uneaten. At the same time, 1 in 10 people globally remain malnourished.
This scale of food loss and waste harms not only human health and nutrition but also economies and the environment. Wasted food takes a major financial toll, costing the global economy more than $1 trillion every year. It also fuels climate change, accounting for approximately 8%-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
And if current trends persist, food loss and waste will double by 2050.
Here, we delve into the scope of this challenge and the global benefits of reducing food loss and waste, as well as solutions at the individual, local and national levels.
What causes food loss and waste?
While food loss and food waste are often talked about together, these terms encompass different issues throughout the food system. Food loss refers to loss at or near the farm and in the supply chain, for example, during harvesting, storage or transport. Food waste occurs at the retail level, in hospitality and in households.
Food loss and waste are caused by a wide range of issues, from technological challenges to consumer behaviours. Some common drivers of food loss include:
- Inadequate technology: Poor infrastructure, such as roads that flood or are hard to travel consistently, can prevent food from making it from farm to table. Lack of cold storage is another major concern for ensuring food can arrive fresh to markets. Farmers may also struggle with inadequate equipment such as old or inefficient machinery that makes it difficult to harvest all of a crop.
- Suboptimal packaging: How foods are packaged can make a big difference in the length of time they stay safe to eat. Many people are justly concerned about the environmental impacts of excessive packaging, but it’s important to remember that correct packaging can help foods stay fresher for longer, thereby reducing spoilage and the associated methane emissions that result from wasted food. An underappreciated fact is that the environmental impact of wasted food is greater than that of packaging waste. So, while it’s important to limit this waste, it’s also important to use correct packaging to reduce food spoilage.
Some common reasons for food waste include:
- Poor food management: Examples include insufficient skills and knowledge among staff who prepare food, which can lead to unnecessary waste during cooking, and inflexible procurement requirements such as retailers only stocking perfect-looking produce or not accepting a farmer’s oversupply of crop. Food waste can also occur when retailers and food providers do not adequately forecast and plan for demand to meet supply (or vice versa).
- Consumer behaviours: Households account for the majority of food wasted at the consumer and retail level. This often results from a lack of awareness of the scale of the issue and insufficient education about how to properly use up and store food at home. Food waste also stems from norms and attitudes that say wasting food is normal, as well as concerns about possible risks of eating food past its sell-by or use-by date label.
There used to be a view that food waste, which happens at the consumer level, tended to be more of a developed country problem while food loss, which can arise from issues in farming and supply chains, was a greater problem in developing countries. But recent research has shown this isn’t true.
Work by the UN Environment Programme shows that food waste occurs at roughly the same level in middle-income countries as in high-income countries. Good-quality data is still limited, but there is a reasonable amount of information to back up this conclusion. Similarly, recent work by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) concluded that food loss on farms is a problem in high-income countries as well as middle- and lower-income countries. These recent studies show that both issues must be addressed on a global scale.
The global benefits of reducing food loss and waste
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals include a call to halve food waste and reduce food losses by 2030 for good reason. Reducing food loss and waste generates benefits for economies, for businesses and consumers, for human health and for the environment.
Improved global nutrition and food security
Reducing food loss and waste can play a big role in providing a healthy, nutritious diet to a growing global population. Not only does one third of all food produced by volume go uneaten, but perishable foods with higher nutritional value, such as fruit and vegetables, are particularly prone to loss and waste: More than 40% of produce by weight is lost or wasted worldwide each year. Ensuring more of the global food supply is used to feed people, rather than perishing or ending up in landfills, is an important strategy for addressing hunger in a world where hundreds of millions still face malnutrition.
Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
Project Drawdown has listed reducing food loss and waste as the single-best strategy for reducing emissions and fighting the climate crisis. Because up to 10% of global emissions result from food loss and waste, it’s simply not possible to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal to stay within 1.5-2°C of warming without tackling this issue.
Emissions from food loss and waste result from the energy and inputs used to produce food that’s ultimately not consumed, as well as the methane that’s emitted when food rots in fields or landfills. Although shorter lived than carbon dioxide, methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas with over 80 times the warming power of CO2. By reducing food loss and waste, we avoid its associated planet-warming emissions.
Improving existing food systems will also help the world feed more people without expanding cultivated areas. Agricultural expansion is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions and often results in deforestation, which releases stored carbon dioxide and lowers the land’s carbon storage capacity. In addition, increasing the efficiency of food production could potentially liberate agricultural land for reforestation, an important way to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
WRI has identified alleviating land use pressures — through efforts like reducing the need to produce more food to compensate for loss and waste — as a key strategy to address the global land squeeze.
Financial savings for businesses and consumers and increased financial security for farmers
Reducing consumer food waste by even 20%-25% by 2030 could save the world an estimated US$120-US$300 billion per year. These savings play out on an individual level as well as a systemic one; by consuming more of what they purchase, households can reduce their overall spending on food. Eliminating avoidable food waste would save the average family in the UK more than £700 (US$870) each year, while in the United States, the average family would save approximately US$1,800.
Reducing food losses — especially post-harvest losses, including food that’s grown but never makes it to market — will also improve farmers’ incomes.
Without the resources to buy up-to-date equipment, many farmers must rely on manual approaches or old, broken equipment that limits their potential yields. Targeted loans and financing can help these farmers buy better equipment, allowing them to harvest more and better-quality crops in a shorter amount of time. The efficiency savings may then lead to higher income. In addition, many smallholder farmers are women who would especially benefit from access to finance and new equipment; reduced food losses could mean they are better positioned to feed, educate and care for their families.
How to reduce food loss and waste at a systemic level
Because food loss and waste happen at every stage of the supply chain, everyone has a vital role to play in addressing this issue.
Households can reduce food waste by focusing on smart shopping and food storage. Some strategies include writing a shopping list, planning meals so that when you go shopping you know what and how much you need, understanding the difference between use-by and best-by date labels, making sure your fridge is set to the optimal temperature, understanding how best to store different foods and making the most of your freezer for leftovers.
Restaurants can reduce food waste by monitoring and managing food usage and ordering. Strategies include measuring food waste in the kitchen to understand what foods are being wasted and designing a fix, engaging staff to understand the importance of minimising waste, avoiding super-sized portions, and focusing on a smaller range of menu offerings in order to better forecast supply ordering.
In September 2022, Ingka Group, IKEA’s largest retailer, became the world’s first major company to cut food waste in half, having done so across all its IKEA restaurants in 32 markets. Such savings can also bring financial benefits for restaurants, with the average restaurant examined in a Champions 12.3 study saving US$7 for every US$1 invested in programs to combat food waste.
Retailers can reduce food waste by improving stocking and food handling practices. Strategies include measuring the amounts and types of food being wasted to identify hotspots that can be reduced; training staff in temperature management, product handling and stock rotation; accepting less-than-perfect looking produce; and educating customers about better food management — for example, how to meal plan and understand date labels, and tips for safe food handling at home.
Many retailers in the UK now include storage advice on food packs (such as “Store in the fridge”) and give customers menu cards with ideas for cooking the produce or foods they purchase. Some are also removing “Best before” date labels from fruit and vegetables, which can help consumers avoid throwing away food that is still perfectly edible. Retailers are explicitly telling customers that these measures are intended to reduce waste and encouraging people to use their senses to tell if food is still good to eat.
Farmers, ranchers and fishers can reduce food losses by improving farming practices; for example, by ensuring produce is harvested at the right maturity and using appropriate harvesting equipment to maximise yield while minimising crop damage. They can also improve their skills or use tools to better schedule harvesting, including accessing better data on weather via new apps like Mausam (which is published by India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences). And they can engage customers such as wholesale retailers to communicate implications of order changes.
Packing, storage and distribution facilities can reduce food loss and waste by re-examining handling, storage and transportation to ensure adoption of best practices and reduce damage. They can also use technological interventions to optimise the transport of food, and work upstream with customers to provide planning tools and handling and storage technologies that help them reduce losses.
For example, bar coding is being used to track food’s transportation journey, so managers can know where a product has been, for how long, and in what temperatures and conditions. This allows retailers to more accurately label and handle food to maximise shelf life, while also providing traceability in the event of a recall.
Processors and manufacturers
Processors and manufacturers can reduce food loss and waste by implementing technical solutions in the supply chain. Strategies include improving training to reduce technical malfunctions and errors during processing, reengineering production processes and product design to reduce waste, using product sizes and packaging that reduce waste by consumers and standardising date labels to reduce confusion.
Governments and policymakers
Governments and policymakers can reduce food loss and waste through educational programs, policies and financial incentives that support more efficient food production and distribution. For example, they can embed food loss awareness, technical assistance and financial aid into agricultural extension services and farmer subsidy programs.
Governments can also promote policies to prevent unfair trading practices (such as last-minute order cancellations and unilateral or retroactive changes to contracts); remove barriers to food redistribution via policies such as liability limitations and tax breaks, which make it easier for food suppliers to donate safe but unsold food to charities or those in need; and support policies to standardise food date labelling practices to reduce confusion about product safety and quality and improve consumer understanding of the meaning of date labels. Finally, governments can make measurement and reporting of food loss and waste by large companies mandatory to facilitate benchmarking, transparency and learning.
This article was originally published here on WRI Insights