The staggering amount of food waste our modern societies create is shocking and utterly shameful. The issue of food waste over recent years has received mounting attention, emerging with growing significance in the realms of public policy, initiatives of retailers and producers, and the media. Fundamentally, the problem is a global public policy issue. Food waste has serious implications; economically, environmentally, socially and most critically morally as this occurs as millions of people globally go hungry.

Food-Waste-Infographic
Source: WordPress Blog.

Food waste statistics revolve around estimates as it is a complex and time-consuming issue to measure. Yet the evidence we have available shows there is little doubt ‘the scale of the problem is substantial’. The colossal nature of the statistics mean it is hard to contextualise the scale of the issue. Most recent assessments from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimate that one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, accounting for 1.3 billion tonnes per year. Closer to home in the UK it is estimated that 10 million tonnes of food and drink waste arises post farmgate, with 60% of this being deemed ‘avoidable’.

The framing of the issue…

One of the most interesting dynamics surrounding food waste is the framing of problem. The responsibility for food waste should reside within all sectors of the food system, from producers, processors, suppliers i.e. supermarkets and us the consumers. Remarkably though it does not, as seemingly the blame and responsibility is continuing to fall upon consumers as the overriding cause and where change needs to occur.

So, is it right we should bear the brunt of the blame?

Food waste is a complex and systematic issue. It occurs at all stages of the food system. Organisations such as WRAP have helped quantify and expose the amounts of food waste produced by households in the UK. Their work is shaping the food waste agenda and has helped aid the growing attention the issue is receiving in public domains. Advising us of the need to change and take responsibility of our throwaway culture. Through means such as this food waste is receiving the needed attention it merits. However, it is helping to frame and create a narrative that it is solely a consumer problem, concealing the other side of the story which needs just as much attention.

The narrative we all know…

It cannot be denied that the statistics show that households and consumers make the greatest contribution to food waste across the food system, accounting for around half of food waste in UK. From simply buying too much food to throwing away good edible food due to labelling, ordinary consumer behaviours contribute to large-scale food waste. The food waste agenda has focused on how we as consumers can reduce household waste from meal planning to loving your leftovers through to composting. This emphasis on the individual is totally necessary and productive. As through public policy efforts and campaigns such as ‘Love Food Hate Waste’ people most importantly now know about the issue and its scale. Individuals are now engaging with the idea of waste and what they can do to stop it, which can only be positive. However, substantiated change through intense individual consumer focus is not the answer for widespread systematic reductions in food waste as there is another narrative that needs to be told…

The other story…

FOOD WASTE GRAPH
Source: BCG. 

A 2018 BCG report illustrates the other side to the food waste story. Within the report they estimate that globally nearly half of all food waste occurs during production, handling and storage, processing and packaging, and distribution and retail. It occurs in a variety of ways often dependent on the context but can include inefficiencies in production lines and machinery, to over ordering produce. It is interesting then that companies involved in these areas of the food system do not seem to have received the same attention in terms of taking responsibility for their contribution to food waste. Companies within these parts of the food system generally state publicly and allow for around 5% of waste within their particular food processes. This seems a commendable figure, though when you consider transparency, the number of companies working within these areas and the scale to which they operate you start to question this.

A new way forward…

Acknowledging there is another narrative to the food waste issue is imperative in reducing the volumes of waste we create. Food waste is a product of the structure of our entire food system, from farm to fork. Current approaches which continue to focus on consumers and households are raising awareness of the issue but doing little to generate substantiated change. Intense focus on the consumer causes of food waste is glazing over the wider issue and is failing to recognise the primary need to combat the problem; collaboration across the food system. Increasing the focus on the large amount of food waste pre-consumer is important as companies who play a major role in the food system have the capacity to make systematic and influential changes which can act as catalysts. These companies operate across all parts of the food system, having great expertise and insight into the potential solutions and where resources are needed to compact structural food waste. They have the influence to change behaviours across the food system, from encouraging shareholders to invest in more efficient machinery to influencing consumers to demand realistic food cosmetic standards for fruit and vegetables. Their power and ability to make change it seems is boundless. Continuing to highlight the need for consumer behaviour change is fundamental in reducing food waste but companies also need to be driven to change and acknowledge their part in the problem. Only if we work together and make change across the food system, will we go some way towards rectifying this critical contemporary issue.