Between 30% and 50% of food production never makes it to the plate but is binned instead. That is, up to 2 billion tonnes of food annually.
At a time when 1 billion of the world’s population cannot afford basic nutritional requirements, these figures should be a call to action. They are the result of a new report by the Institution of Mechanical of Engineers (IME). ‘Global Food, Waste Not Want Not‘ examines the changing nature and causations behind global food wastage.
That the global food production system impacts negatively on the environment is no new story. The agribusiness industry has been exposed time and time again for its aggressive destruction of ecosystems. Vital rain forests have been systematically cleared, ecosystems have been poisoned by excessive fertilisation, unnecessarily high levels of energy have been pumped into feeding stock when growing crops is far more energy efficient. At a time when there is a world water crisis, 550 billion cubic meters of water is wasted annually on crops that may never even reach the supermarkets.
No, these environmental externalities are not new. However, they seem all the more pertinent and tragic when such high quantities of produce are simply thrown out.
What is driving waste?
While in the developing world the issue stems from poor infrastructure and technical difficulties in production, the problem is of an entirely different nature in the developed world. The problem in the western world is slightly more complex. It can be pinpointed to consumerism, targeted marketing and high retail standards.
Retailers have been known to reject entire crops if they do not comply with size and shape requirements. This pursuit of ‘product perfection’ means many edible products never even enter the market.
On the other hand, a significant part of the waste equation occurs at the consumer phase. Retail promotions such as ‘buy one get one free’ encourage over-consumerism. Consumers buy more than they need, the result being an increase in waste.
The voluntary Courtauld Commitment, which aims to reduce packaging and food waste, has been operating since 2005 in collaboration with the UK government. In this time it has seen an 8.8% reduction in retail and consumer driven waste. Companies have made significant progress by building stronger supply-chain wide relationships and engaging in sustainability discussions.
Where to from here?
Companies are starting to recognise the benefits of cutting waste. Besides the environmental impact, reducing waste is cost efficient also. Further work needs to be done to tackle post-consumer waste. This requires more effective communication in the form of clear product labelling. Retailers have the power to influence the habits of consumers by sending a strong anti-waste message.
Another area which may prove effective, is reducing the legal barriers that prevent large-scale retailers from providing charities with ‘waste’ fresh produce.
On a governmental level, policies should be implemented to discourage retailers from pursuing ‘product perfection’ and encouraging over-consumerism.
IME’s report highlights the enormity of this morally perverse situation. To be overproducing in a world where many people go starving is unfathomable. Positive changes are being made, but there are many more ways in which we, as businesses and consumers, can move away from a society that needlessly wastes food.
Acacia Smith is a New Zealander now based in London. She holds a bachelor degree and postgraduate diploma from Victoria University of Wellington. She has worked for the Council for International Development (CID) and more recently in Bolivia for CIWY, a network of private parks for the rehabilitation and conservation of Amazonian fauna. Acacia is passionate about sustainability and the role businesses can play in promoting a better, more sustainable future.