You may have heard the terms ‘food loss’ and ‘food waste’ but what do they really mean and what is the difference? In this post I will refer to food loss as the reduction in edible food that occurs in the supply chain between production and retail; and food waste as food losses that occur between retail and consumption caused by retailers’ and consumers’ behaviours. Food loss and waste (FLW) is a more general term used to describe a reduction in food mass originally intended for human consumption, at any stage of the food chain, due to any cause.
This article will discuss issues surrounding food losses and waste on a global and a national scale as well as suggesting how governments, retailers and we as consumers, can change our habits and make steps towards reducing our food waste.
It is estimated that each year around the world a massive one-third of all edible food produced for human consumption never reaches a human mouth. This equates to roughly 1.3 billion tonnes of food annually either lost in the supply chain for various reasons or thrown out by supermarkets and consumers. Despite this, there are still almost 800 million (1 in 10) people across the world suffering from hunger. The world’s hungry could be fed almost three times over with this completely edible food which is recklessly discarded. This emphasizes the scale and complexity of the issue of FLW, and the need for further waste reduction policies to be implemented. In an ideal world, this food could be simply re-distributed to those in need, however the infrastructure in place does not allow for this, and the industry does not work by providing food to those with the greatest need, but instead, to those with the greatest wealth. Ensuring food security for the entire population is a mammoth task, and not one that can be solved by simply redistributing rejected food.
Food losses and waste are a product of a failed food system and highlight the lack of sustainability and environmental concern in food production and distribution. FLW occur at all levels of the food supply chain as can be seen by the figure below. In developing countries FLW arise mainly in the harvest and post-harvest stages of the food chain. This may be as a result of a number of factors including premature or delayed harvesting due to lack of information and poverty; inadequate infrastructure for transportation and storage; and poor farming techniques leading to loss of produce. On the other hand, it is at the consumer level in the developed countries of the Western world that the biggest proportion of food is wasted. Consumerism combined with lack of knowledge about storing food and cooking with leftovers, confusion about best-before and use-by labels, lack of awareness about the implications of food waste and a general ignorant attitude culminate this serious problem.
The UK is one of the worst contributors to food waste worldwide, with post-farm gate food waste totalling 10.2 million tonnes, approximately 11% of the EU total. Household waste makes up a large proportion of this figure, with 20% of the food bought by European households going to waste. WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme), reported UK household food waste to be 7.1 million tonnes, 5 million of which were said to be avoidable. The total cost of this food waste is a massive £15 billion, or roughly £840 per year for a family with children. This is money that could have been saved by being more conscious of waste when doing the weekly food shop. The emissions generated from the production, storage, distribution and packaging of this food totalled 22 million tonnes of CO2, the equivalent of running 4.5 million cars for a year.
How can we justify all this wastage when over 10% of the UK population struggle to afford to eat and 4.5% of people aged over 15 face severe food insecurity? Food insecurity describes a situation in which a lack of resources or finances, means that meals must be foregone as there is a limited access to food. The Food Insecurity and Experience Scale (FIES) seen below is a measure of the level of food insecurity.
In the UK currently, much of the surplus food from manufacturers and food processors is used as animal feed or is anaerobically digested to produce biogas and biofertiliser rather than going to people in need. This problem has arisen since there are several Government incentives to support anaerobic digestion, but none for the redistribution of food to people going hungry. The waste hierarchy, seen below, has been incorporated into UK law and aims to support UK businesses in primarily minimising waste, but also reducing the environmental impacts of any waste produced. It encourages redistribution of surplus food to people in need which helps to tackle hunger and poverty as well as waste reduction.
What is already being done to tackle food waste?
In recent years, individuals, retailers and other businesses in the food supply chain have started to recognise food waste as a real problem. This has resulted in action from a variety of groups including charities such as FareShare who are the UK’s largest food distribution charity. FareShare’s redistribution of frozen food to other charities has grown by 60% in the last year. This exemplifies that steps are being made in the right direction, but also highlights the potential opportunities for other businesses to follow suit and continue the positive work that is already taking place.
Between 2007 and 2015 there was a reduction of annual household food waste from 8.1 million tonnes to 7.1 million tonnes, a decrease of roughly 13%. This data suggests that consumers are making more conscious decisions to reduce the unnecessary waste that ends up in their kitchen bin.
Other examples of positive changes, aiming to reduce food waste include:
- Campaigns such as Love Food Hate Waste which aim to publicise the extent of food waste, highlight the importance of reducing it, and empower individuals to make small changes at the household level. Their website has lots of handy hacks from recipes using vegetable peelings to how to store foods effectively in order to give them the longest life.
- Incentives such as ‘wonky veg’ being sold in supermarkets, leading to a huge reduction in food loss from food production. Retailers in many countries have such strict cosmetic standards which must be met in order to reach the supermarket shelves.
- Community fridges which are a great way of enabling businesses and communities to share food that would otherwise go to waste. These are beginning to pop up all over the UK, and anyone is able to set one up themselves!
- The UK Government recently allocating £15 million to the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in order to tackle food waste. A pilot scheme to address surplus food from production and retail which aims to redistribute the UK’s food surplus to those in need has been developed and is running throughout 2019/20.
What more can be done about food waste?
As can be seen by all the aforementioned examples, individuals and communities are beginning to take some responsibility and express concern for the vast amount of FLW we generate. However, in order to resolve this colossal problem, changes need to be implemented on a global scale with all levels of the food supply chain dedicated to reform.
Further suggestions for reducing food waste include:
- Councils enforcing the use of compost bins and separation of food waste to reduce the amount going to landfill.
- Tackling supermarket surplus by introducing laws around how much food they can have on their shelves.
- Investment in optimising re-distribution of edible food waste to those in need.
- Governments enforcing laws to prevent retailers from setting such strict specifications and cosmetic standards for farm produce.
- Encouraging consumers to buy only what they need, plan their meals, freeze leftovers, and use all parts of foods such as cauliflower stems and leaves.
- Incentivising purchasing of seasonal and local produce.
Drastically reducing food waste and implementing a more sustainable food system would go a long way to achieving food security and food justice around the world. This will have a wide range of positive impacts including more disposable income for consumers, fairer prices for farmers’ produce, preventing more land being cleared to grow crops or rear livestock, and fewer greenhouse gas emissions being generated from excess production. Since almost 70% of the UK’s food waste is created by households, taking it upon yourself and encouraging others to make changes at home, using some of the ideas above, could just make all the difference in achieving this goal.