Rising food waste and water shortage

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

23 June 2014 See comments (11)

food waste
FOOD WASTE: One third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally.

The German word for food is ‘Lebensmittel’, i.e., a means to live, which reflects better than anything else its importance. But “one third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally.” (FAO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation)

On the one hand, this has an economic impact: the global economic cost of food wastage, based on 2009 producer prices, is USD 750 billion, approximately the 2011 GDP of Turkey or Switzerland. (Source: FAO - pdf document)

On the other hand, it adds significantly to water overuse: present wastage is the equivalent of more than 1,000 cubic kilometres of freshwater abstracted per year, i.e. close to 25% of total estimated global withdrawals for human use in 2005. ( 2030 Water Resources Group, Charting our water future, page 6 - pdf document) This is particularly important as water, and the rapidly growing gap between withdrawals and sustainable supply, will be by far the most critical chokepoint for global food supply security for the next 10-20 years.

Where does it happen, what are the causes?

About one-third of today’s food losses occur in advanced economies and two-thirds in developing countries (with lower per-capita waste but a much higher share in global population).

In developed economies, waste is very much the result of prosperity. One-third of the overall 280-300 kg per capita of all food wasted and lost is actually thrown out by consumers, with a negative underlying trend: in the United States, per capita food waste has increased approximately 50% since 1974 (this figure comes from a somewhat unusual source namely the US Government’s Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases).

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, discarded food represents the single largest component of total municipal solid waste. Waste is also accentuated by at times exaggerated “aesthetic” food standards set by governments and retailers (source: FAO - pdf document). “EU rules on misshapen fruit and veg were relaxed in 2009 but supermarkets still maintain private product standards.” (Source: The Telegraph)

In emerging and developing economies, food loss is the outcome of poverty, particularly a lack of infrastructure and associated technical and managerial skills in food production and post-harvest processing. In these countries, 95% of the 95-115 kg of food wasted per capita is lost and wasted before reaching consumers.

Again, in many instances, trends seem to be negative, too. There is no record of progress made towards the post-harvest loss reduction target set by the UN General Assembly in 1975. On the contrary, this report - pdf document) by the organisation Business for Social Responsibility found that “in many poorer countries, storage infrastructure, such as grain silos, is worse than it was 30 years ago, the net result of reduced government investment in agriculture.” (Source: BSR - pdf document) Rapid urbanisation leads to extended supply chains, which would require more rather than less investment in infrastructure. And without trying to be complete: with more prosperity in emerging economies comes a “shift towards vulnerable, shorter shelf-life items” (J. Parfitt et al., Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050, Royal Society August 2010).

Whenever strategies are designed to bring freshwater withdrawals back into line with sustainable supply, policies and initiatives reversing negative trends and enabling a significant reduction of loss and waste of food must be included.

What can be done?

Let us start in advanced economies. Farmers, traders, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers should carefully look at their supply chain and processes. A good example of this is Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), with its three major goals: (a) reduce waste wherever possible, (b) increase donations of safe and nutritious food getting close to the “best before” date, and (c) increase recycling of the remaining parts where the first two goals do not succeed.

The very high waste of products bought by consumers and then thrown away is also a question of personal responsibility. In Europe and North America, 95-115 kg per year of food per capita ends in waste baskets at home, compared to only 6-11 kg per capita per year in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia. Industry and retail can help reduce this type of waste, for instance with smaller portions or pack sizes.

In developing countries, we must urgently improve the infrastructure. This will be a key item on the agenda of the G20 meeting of heads of state and government in Australia this year. As a consequence, the business-driven B20 – the aim of which is to contribute ideas for the gathering of the government leaders – selected investment in infrastructure as the priority for one of the five taskforces.

For this group, at Nestlé we estimated an investment of USD 2.5-3 trillion in emerging/developing economies will be needed over the period 2005-2050, for cold and dry post-harvest storage, rural roads, wholesale market facilities and first-stage processing (estimate based on FAO data - pdf document). This is high, but seems affordable. And even if only half of the USD 750 billion global food loss and wastage per year mentioned in the first paragraph could be avoided with these investments, the payback time seems reasonably short.

Again, there is also a role for industry. First by reducing any remaining waste in operations, but also by contributing to the modernisation of the food supply chain, in view of the increasing number of people living in cities with a population of more than 1 million and the ever-longer distances between farm and consumers’ dinner tables.

traditional transportation of milk
Traditional transportation of milk.

Let me illustrate the potential impact of more industry involvement with a product I know particularly well, namely milk. Studies by the FAO (pdf document) show an 18% loss in traditional fresh milk supply chains to urban centres in developing countries, due to spillage and spoilage. Depending on the season, these losses can be up to 50% due to forced consumption, because traditional buyers do not reach dairy farmers.

In comparison: losses in our Nestlé supply chain from milk farmer to retail are below 0.6%, for instance in the climatic conditions of Pakistan and over very long distances. There, the milk-shed where we collect milk from smallholder farmers extends over an area with a total surface twice the size of Switzerland.

And then there is packaging (rather unpopular in parts of Western societies): "Food wastage in less-developed regions … with good packaging it is rarely more than 2-3%.”

Please comment

I am sure there are many more solutions, more issues that need to be addressed in order to reverse the trend towards increasing food loss and waste. I am looking forward to your comments and ideas.

  1. Amit kedia @ Accenture Technologies

    23 Jun 2014 - 17:18 (GMT)

    First of all I want to thank Nestle for coming up with such a nice blog that brings to notice a rather unspoken topic among majority of people. I am from India and when I see the problems of food wastage in my country, where millions of people remain unfed every night, I feel like doing something but I must admit that apart of my contribution of eating little less than required and never wasting food, I don't do anything for others.
    I strongly believe, that if all educated mass all over the world just stick with these two rules, there will not be much left to worry about. Incentive are obvious to name 1)Food won't be wasted 2)No obesity problem 3)Healthy life and environment.
    So the problem now is how can someone eat a little less than required. The simple solution is have more frequent water, exercise regularly and do Yoga. Yoga helps to develop control over body which is so must required to put an end to this crisis. Just to discuss the result, if 2 Billion people start living a healthy life, as suggested, they can save at least 50 gm of food everyday. This way 36.5 Billion Kg of food material can be saved. That is enough to feed the unfed.

  2. Margaret Zeigler @ Global Harvest Initiative

    23 Jun 2014 - 19:32 (GMT)

    Peter Brabeck-Letmathe's blog is spot on!

    The global water challenge for agriculture must indeed have a priority focus as the world's population shifts from grain-based diets to higher value foods, including more horticulture, meat, dairy and fish. Shifting to these new foods will use more water in production and solutions must be found along the entire agricultural value chain (from farm to plate) to sustain the natural resource base and to meet the growing needs of the world's middle classes.

    Nestle has been an industry leader in looking at how to improve supply chains and to track and reduce waste. It is encouraging to see a growing number of responsible companies moving in this direction as well.

    The combined public-private investment required for roads, rural infrastructure and storage/processing that Peter cites above is certainly needed to achieve a more sustainable and productive food system, reducing waste and loss. A key question that our organization, the Global Harvest Initiative (GHI), asks is "What are the right policies countries can put in place to encourage the private sector investments needed to fill the investment gap?"

    GHI is a private-sector policy voice that annually tracks global agricultural productivity in our annual GAP (Global Agricultural Productivity) Report. In the GAP Report we highlight solutions to conserve natural resources, adapt to climate change and new consumer preferences, and improve the lives of producers and consumers along the entire agriculture value chain. Getting the policies right is the starting point for mobilizing the capital and investments needed for the future and cited by Peter above.

    The 2013 GAP Report provides many examples of innovations along the value chain, including the use of precision agriculture systems that dramatically reduce water use as well as more simple technologies for post-harvest storage that can be used at the smallholder farm level. This report and prior reports can be accessed online at www.globalharvestinitiative.org

    GHI's 2014 GAP Report will contain a special focus on India, identifying the food and agricultural systems challenge there, and providing not only programmatic but policy solutions to address the needs of smallholder farmers, consumers, and the environment. We look forward to sharing models of productivity in the Indian context and are interested in hearing from others about innovations and policy reform that are transforming value chains in India and around the world.

    Margaret Zeigler
    Executive Director
    Global Harvest Initiative

  3. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestlé

    25 Jun 2014 - 18:20 (GMT)

    @ Margaret Zeigler Dear Margaret, thanks for an excellent comment and thanks for mentioning your report. One of your headlines instantly caught my attention: “The Latin America and Caribbean region has 1/3 of both the world’s arable land and fresh water”, and, I may add, only some 8% of global population. You are right to point in your report to this region as future bread basket. Regards, Peter

  4. Javed Malik @ Self

    27 Jun 2014 - 06:38 (GMT)

    good day, main cause of any problem including water/food, is lack of sincerity, there are two groups of people in world one serving humans, others are humanity enemies creating shortages to get benefits, solution is to identify non-sincere, and keep them away from every water/ food sources, (by eliminating taxes)

  5. Ivan Zendel @ Paradigm Solutions

    12 Jul 2014 - 00:27 (GMT)

    Without recognising water as a fundamental human right, your words are self serving, and your soul corrupted.
    Your company has a social licence to operate; denial of this basic human right is an abrogation of that licence.

  6. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestlé

    14 Jul 2014 - 12:35 (GMT)

    @ Ivan Zendel Dear Ivan, thanks for the comment. I agree fully, water is a human right; you find my views on this here on the blog in several posts, in some more detail, for instance, on https://www.water-challenge.com/posts/Water-is-a-human-right-–-but-not-a-free-good.aspx .
    Regards, Peter.

  7. Rainer Pauly @ Maismoda

    13 Jul 2014 - 17:48 (GMT)

    Water is a free and common good. For the past, present and the future.

  8. Veronika Hauenstein @ BRD

    14 Jul 2014 - 11:46 (GMT)

    Die Erde und Bodenachätze gehören uns allen!

  9. Jacqueline Barendse @ WASTE

    01 Dec 2014 - 15:37 (GMT)

    Working as director for the Dutch organisation “WASTE advisers on Urban Environment and Development” (the name indicates what we do; www.waste.nl) it might not wonder that I read with high interest the blog of Peter Brabeck-Letmathe on the global challenges related to the water-food-waste nexus and appreciate Peter’s invitation to comment on his blog.

    As discussed in Peter’s blog, improved post harvest solutions, like more public-private investments in (also more appropriate!) infrastructure especially in developing countries certainly are essential and urgently need to be embedded in an improved enabling environment (policies, (dis)incentives etc), as pointed out by Margaret Zeigler. However, this needs time to implement and make it work on scale. On the advocacy for improved packaging: yes, here is lot’s to gain; but since this also likely would result in more packaging, I see the rebound effects with causing even more plastic waste. So let us work on various solutions simultaneously, in an integrated manner.

    One integrated solution to do it is to apply the principle of good resource management based on the 3Rs – reduce, reuse, recycle, Where to start? Everywhere! Given the interrelationship in a globalized world and since we are running out of time, this approach should not initially focus on the advanced economies (as it seems suggested in the blog), but also being applied on scale in the developing countries, where resources demand (including food) is increasing to an even faster pace than in the advanced economies. To share my sense of urgency on increasing resources constraints; the worsening water security situation risks triggering a global food crisis within the next 15-20 years already,. Wasting food, means wasting (virtual) water, as pointed out very well in the blog. Additional to the growing water scarcity, is the pollution problem caused by agriculture, food processing and food waste. That is, the solid waste and wastewater mismanagement in many countries where organic and non-organic waste is discharged to water bodies causing water pollution, reducing amount of usable water. Besides this waste causes choking of drainage systems and as a consequence flooding and health problems (malaria etc).

    WASTE believes in a circular economy where we go beyond pollution prevention by turning wastes into resources (e.g. food, energy and materials) . There is an urgent need, but also huge potential in closing the resource loop by developing reuse schemes in the field of solid waste and sanitation for agriculture and/or other purposes in low- and middle- income countries. An enormous potential of resources in wastes are now spilled because they are treated as wastes, instead of resources that can be re-used (valorized) for agriculture and other recycling activities. To re-use these solid and liquid wastes into, for example, compost that offers benefits as soil conditioner including higher crop yield and quality and improvement of moisture retention capacity in soils, which helps to reduce (irrigation) water demand and in this way reduces the high-pressure on water resources. Also organic fertilizers, like re-used from urine, helps in “more crop per drop” while avoiding water pollution problems. However, in order to have a significant impact and scale that matters, a good scheme is crucial to ensure good system of collection and efficient re-use to turn solid waste or sanitation wastes into valuable products e.g. compost, recycled materials, for agriculture and/or other purposes are crucial. Here the private sector, like Nestle, can contribute significantly. We have an example in India how to upscale, with our program FINISH: “Financial Inclusion Improves Sanitation and Health” (www.finishsociety.org). Here we have realised more than 300,000 toilets across India since 2009 (10 States with over 60 partners); . currently every 3 minutes another toilet is built on 24/7 basis and designed for business opportunities in using human and solid waste for re-use and generate compost, organic fertilizers and bio-energy. The objective is reuse of organic (and other) waste will have become a viable business by 2020, contributing to sustainable development, not only in India but world-wide.

    All of this process could simply start by regarding wastes not as waste, not as a problem but as a potential resource.

    Should you be interested in taking a step forward in such circular economy approach, please do not hesitate to contact me via barendse@waste.nl or find more information in waste.nl.

  10. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestlé

    08 Dec 2014 - 19:58 (GMT)

    @ Jacqueline Barendse Dear Jacqueline, thanks for your message and the comment. Let me respond on a few points. First on packaging: better packaging does not necessarily mean more packaging material; our Nestlé R&D shows that more efficient (less material, less cost, i.e., the first one of your 3Rs) and safer packaging do not need to be in conflict.

    Thanks in particular for extending the view from water (in my blog post) to overall resource constraints, and the environmental impact of organic waste. Turning waste into a resource: we help farmers with biogesters, transforming manure into dry fertiliser that does not (or less) pollute groundwater, and provides some gas for cooking. And we are working on a bigger unit of that kind in a region where we want to protect the source of one of our bottled water plants here in Switzerland, and where, in addition, coffee cake from Nespresso is transformed into a resource. Once this plant is up and running, I ma sure my colleagues there would appreciate your visit, also for an exchange of experience.

    Best regards, Peter

  11. Elanthendral @ Atlantika Traders

    07 Mar 2016 - 10:13 (GMT)

    Thanks for your details and explanations..I want more information from your side..I Am working in Mineral Water For Corporates In Chennai.

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