Addressing Food Waste a Priority

The article below was published in Features #3695 (June 2011).

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June 2011


While millions around the world go hungry, much food that can still be consumed are wasted or thrown away.

By Chee Yoke Heong
Third World Network Features

At a time of soaring food prices which have heightened poverty and hunger in many parts of the world, a new report highlights the massive amount of food that goes down the drain yearly.

"Roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally," according to a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) titled  "Global Food Losses and Food Waste." This translates into approximately 1.3 billion tons per year, with food wasted throughout the food supply chain, from the fields down to the consumer.

In terms of food wasted by consumers on a per capita basis, the industrialized countries clocked the highest levels, with countries in Europe and North America leading the way at 95-115 kg/year compared to only 6-11 kg/year for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South/Southeast Asia.

However, food losses in developing countries are as high as in the industrialized countries, but in the former more than 40% of the food losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels, while in industrialized countries, more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels. Consumers in industrialized countries waste as much as 220 million tons, almost on par with the total amount of food produced in SSA, which is 230 million tons.

Aside from the economic cost associated with loss of earnings from food produced, food lost or wasted also "means that amounts of the resources used in food production are used in vain (such as land, water and energy), and that the greenhouse gas emissions caused by production of food that gets lost or wasted are also emissions in vain", the report said.

These sobering facts should wake us up to the scale of wastage that goes on worldwide while millions suffer from hunger and malnutrition and the effects of climate change. If the amount of food wasted and lost could be reduced and channelled to those who need it most, it will go a long way to addressing the problem of food insecurity worldwide.

The report looks at the extent of the losses and waste of seven groups of foods consumed by humans, namely, cereals (i.e., wheat and rice), roots and tubers, oil crops and pulses, fruits and vegetables, meat and its products, fish and seafoods, and milk.

The causes of food losses and waste range from overproduction to unsafe food and poor infrastructure and marketing channels, and they may differ between industrialized and developing countries.

One of the more important reasons for food waste at the consumption level in rich countries is that people simply can afford to waste food. Consumers in developing countries, however, usually buy smaller amounts at a time and often just enough for the day, therefore wastage is minimal. Poverty and lesser income also limit the amount of wastage, said the report.

Failure to meet high "appearance quality standards" from supermarkets is another factor that leads to food waste.  Some fresh produce are rejected by supermarkets at the farm gate because they do not meet rigorous quality standards concerning weight, size, shape and appearance. Therefore, much of the crops never leave the farm and may end up as animal feed, according to the report.

In addition, food is also lost in industrialized food processing lines which carry out trimming to ensure the end product is in the right shape and size. Trimmings, in some cases, could be used for human consumption but are usually disposed of because it is often cheaper to throw them away than to use or reuse them.

Food is also lost due to spoilage when errors occur down the production line resulting in final products with the wrong weight, shape or appearance, or damaged packaging. Though this does not affect the safety, taste or nutritional value of the spoiled products, in a standardized production line, they often end up being discarded.

Unsafe foods which are not fit for human consumption, for instance foods that do not meet minimum food safety standards, can lead to food losses. These include foods that contain toxins, dangerous pesticides or veterinary drug residues and those tainted by contaminated water.

In developing countries, fresh produce such as fruits, vegetables, meat and fish are often spoilt due to poor storage facilities and lack of infrastructure for transportation, storage, cooling and markets. There are too few wholesale, supermarket and retail facilities providing suitable storage and sales conditions for food products and if they exist, wholesale and retail markets are often small, overcrowded, unsanitary and lacking cooling equipment.

In the industrialized countries, retailers tend to display large quantities and a wide range of products/brands in order to meet consumer expectations. It is also more cost-effective to purchase bulk from manufacturers. But this leads to waste as not all the products will be sold before they reach their "sell-by" date and those near their expiry dates are shunned by consumers and are therefore wasted.

The report makes a number of recommendations to address wastage and stresses the importance of reducing food losses especially in poor countries. Given that many small farmers in developing countries live on the margins of food insecurity, a reduction of food losses could have an "immediate and significant impact on their livelihoods". For the consumers, improving the efficiency of the food supply chain could bring down the cost of food to the consumer and thus increase access.

As such, one of the recommendations put forth by the report is the strengthening of the entire food supply chain in developing countries by encouraging farmers to organize and to diversify and upscale their production and marketing as well as undertaking investment in infrastructure and transportation.

The report acknowledges that much research needs to be conducted to provide a greater understanding on global food loss and waste, not least on the impact of growing international trade on food losses given the increasingly globalized nature of food production and consumption.

With much of the attention directed at trying to grow more food to meet the expected increase in demand, it is timely to assess how existing food that is produced can be retained as much as possible throughout the food supply chain. In a world with limited natural resources in the form of land, water and energy, reducing food losses should also be given priority.  Third World Network Features.


About the writer:  Chee Yoke Heong is a researcher with the Third World Network.

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