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.
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%.”
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.