Food Waste – what is all about?
When we talk about food waste, our attention is normally focused on the solid food matter that we throw into our bins; but food waste is bigger than that. In this article, let’s consider food waste to include any edible and inedible food item meant for human consumption, which for one reason or other is discarded to become waste’. Food waste occurs at different points along the food supply chain, mainly at the retail and consumption stages (in high income countries) and the farm gate in low-income countries.
Why is it a Problem?
Food waste occurs all over the world, it is a problem because it amounts to wasting money and huge amount of scarce resources (soil nutrients, water, land, biodiversity, packing and processing resources, energy ) used to produce food. Thus food waste has negative consequences for global food security, economic, social and environmental sustainability. It has been estimated that globally, about 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted annually, whilst in UK, this is over 15 million tonnes, and half comes from our homes (video). Yet food insecurity persists in several countries, with an estimated 795 million people undernourished globally. Even in the advanced countries, food insecurity exists among some households in deprived communities. In the UK, there is a record increase in demand for food banks due to food poverty. Therefore food waste has become a hot political topic (even on TV comedy shows).
The fundamental problem with food waste is that ‘Waste’ is embedded in the current food regime. In one sense, food is too expensive for some; and in another, it is too cheap; a contradiction difficult to be resolved. Our food system is based on industrialised food production, and waste is locked in the system. Food waste only brings the inefficiencies to the surface. Within the food system, regulatory and standardisation requirement for e.g. size, shape, colour and texture (EU regulation EC 2257/94) can cause huge rejection of edible bananas and cucumbers.
Tristram Stuart looks at bananas too curved or too long/short, for the European market in Colombia.
Supermarket chains and large retailers have their own standards and regulations that produce food waste at farm gates and on the shelves. Besides, maintaining and protecting brand reputation by food processors and supermarkets play an important role in producing food waste. Edible foods that have passed ‘sell by date’ are discarded to avoid negative publicity or legal liabilities. Such foods which are perfectly good for consumption and can be donated to charities or its prices reduced, are thrown away. Furthermore, food waste can result from poor distribution and storage infrastructure, excess supply over demand and inefficient processing technologies, packing defects or contamination could all result in mass amount of food wasted before reaching the consumer as the case of e-coli outbreak in 2011 where northern European countries lost huge quantities of vegetables.
Consumers and Issues of Food Waste
Food waste at consumer-level is high especially in high-income countries. Hence, consumers have become a target for reducing food waste through behavioural change (EU 1999 Landfill directive). In the UK, the government WRAP programme on awareness raising and education is active but the cultural and social context within which food becomes waste in the household is a complex one. Consumer preferences, taste, quality expectations and social and cultural factors can create food waste. Food is culturally defined and is a way of identity – while in some cultures, certain types of food are considered as a delicacy, in others, it is considered abhorrent, therefore becomes waste. High disposal incomes allow families to purchase food far in excess of their needs, resulting in food waste. Cultural definitions of what count as food and when it stops being food can create food waste. Supermarkets big portion sizes, ‘bogos deals’ and selling fruits/vegetables in packages also create food waste in homes.
What can be done?
Solving the issue of food waste is not a simple matter of finding the ‘black box’ of a crashed aeroplane to determine the cause(s) of the crash. Beneath the staggering food waste figures are myriad of factors that are intertwined. Chiefly among them are profit greedy agro-businesses and corporations fuelled by neoliberalism – free market agenda. Supermarkets and giant retailers muddy the ‘water’ with standard requirements, regulations, and certification for aesthetically perfect products. Food safety and quality standards, policies and regulations further complicate the matter. There is the need for a policy shift to focus on ways of using edible but aesthetically misfit foods to reduce waste. Although recent initiatives by some big supermarkets to sell wonky produces (Tesco, Asda (wonky veg box), Morrison ( wanky veg packets)), is a step in the right direction, this needs to be embraced by all retailers and distributors. Policy initiative is needed to make wonky produces part of the normal produces on the shelves.
At the consumer end, there are complexities of taste, preferences, cultural factors, quality expectation, managing daily life demands, using technologies (fridge/freezers to store food) to avoid moral guilt of wasting, all of which can affects food waste. At the disposal stages, the burden is placed on consumers to sort out their food waste for collection, which requires a whole infrastructure to be in place; and the economics must add up, otherwise there is no incentive for waste management organisations. While the argument to recover value from food waste to generate energy and organic fertiliser (through Anaerobic Digestion) is valid, it reinforces more food to be wasted.
Thus, this ‘bio-mechanical scavengers’ could provide moral justification for wasting more food. Current approaches to tackling food waste in western countries turn to focus on individuals, households and consumers (raising awareness, giving information, making ‘better choices’). These approaches touch the edges, not the underlying causes. Tackling food waste at the end of pipeline and in isolation eliminates other issues (land use, malnutrition, obesity, injustice and inequality, socio-economic issues ). A whole system approach is required to tackle the problem