Food prices soaring, but a third is still lost or wasted: what can be done?

Wasted food Food prices, along with the cost of energy, are one of the main current drivers of inflation around the world. Bloomberg reported last week that world food prices reached near-record levels in April, with corn prices almost doubling in the last 12 months and wheat prices going up by 57% in the same period. With the global population still rising, and changing patterns of consumption in countries such as China making supply of many food commodities struggle to keep up with demand, it therefore makes depressing reading to see that around a third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. And in developed countries, much of that figure is simply down to waste.

The figures come from a study commissioned by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and compiled by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology. The report finds that an astonishing 1.3 billion tonnes of food gets lost or wasted each year. Roughly equal amounts are dissipated by industrialized and developing countries (670 and 630 million tonnes, respectively), but from different reasons. In industrialized countries, large amounts of food simply go to waste, while in developing countries losses are due more to poor infrastructure and technology. Read on to see what can be done.

Loss vs. waste

Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year in rich countries, almost twice the 460 kg a year produced in the poorest regions. In developing countries 40 percent of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialized countries more than 40 percent of losses happen at retail and consumer levels.

Food losses – occurring at the production, harvest, post-harvest and processing phases – are greater in developing countries due to poor infrastructure, low levels of technology and low investment in the food production systems. These losses in harvest and storage translate into lost income for small farmers and into higher prices for poor consumers, notes the report. Reducing losses could therefore have an "immediate and significant" impact on their livelihoods and food security.

Food waste is more a problem in industrialized countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia each throw away only 6-11 kg a year. According to the FAO report, each year consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes). And this when the FAO put the number of hungry people in the world last year at 925 million.

What can be done?

The report outlines possible steps by which both rich and poor countries can address the problems of food loss and waste.

In developing countries the problem is chiefly one of inadequate harvest techniques, poor post-harvest management and logistics, lack of suitable infrastructure, processing and packaging, and lack of marketing information which would allow production to better match demand.

The advice is therefore to strengthen the food supply chain by assisting small farmers to link directly to buyers. The private and public sectors should also invest more in infrastructure, transportation and in processing and packaging.

In richer countries, there are practical measures that we can all take. Surveys show that consumers are willing to buy produce not meeting appearance standards as long as it is safe and tastes good. Customers thus have the power to influence quality standards and should do so, says the report.

Simply planning our shopping better can help. Not planning our food shopping and meal preparation means that often consumers don't use food before the "best before" date, and throw it out when the date expires. We may buy 'ready-to-eat' convenience foods which have larger portions than we actually want. And when eating out, fixed-price buffets can spur customers to heap their plates only to find that appetites don't match what we have taken.

There are measures the retail and catering sectors can take too. At retail level, large quantities of food are wasted due to quality standards that demand specific sizes and over-emphasize appearance. And more options for smaller portions would reduce wastage. My elderly mother finds most meals out far too big for her, so seeks out pubs and restaurants which offer the option for smaller portions of the main courses: an easy thing to offer, and it may even increase custom.

The report calls for a change in consumer attitudes to encourage them to not buy more food than they need at any one time and to not throw food away needlessly. With food inflation in the UK, for example, close to 5% at a time when many of us are suffering from pay freezes, surely this common sense behaviour is not too much to ask?

See the link below to access the full report. CAB Abstracts and the Nutrition and Food Sciences Database cover all stages of the food life cycle: a few relevant references on waste are given below.

External link

Global Food Losses and Food Waste (1.13 MB PDF file)

Further reading

Food waste in Australia. Schapper, J.; Chan, S.; Food Australia, 2010, 62, 7, pp 307-310, 50 ref.

Deterioration and disposal of fruit in the home: consumer interviews and fruit quality assessments. Campbell, R. L.; Smith, B. G.; Jaeger, S. R.; Harker, F. R.; Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 2009, 89, 1, pp 24-32, 24 ref. [doi: 10.1002/jsfa.3406]

The use of uncertainty analysis as a food waste estimation tool. Langley, J.; Yoxall, A.; Manson, G.; Lewis, W.; Waterhouse, A.; Thelwall, D.; Thelwall, S.; Parry, A.; Leech, B.; Waste Management & Research, 2009, 27, 3, pp 199-206, 7 ref. [doi: 10.1177/0734242X08095231]

Home transport and wastage: environmentally relevant household activities in the life cycle of food. Sonesson, U.; Anteson, F.; Davis, J.; Sjödén, P. O.; Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden, Ambio, 2005, 34, 4/5, pp 371-375, 15 ref. [doi: 10.1579/0044-7447-34.4.371]

Food losses: what do stakeholders think? A study of perception, attitude and behaviour of stakeholders to prevent food losses. Meeusen, M.; Hagelaar, G.; Rapport – Landbouw-Economisch Instituut, 2008, 2008-014, pp 51, 7 ref.

One thought on “Food prices soaring, but a third is still lost or wasted: what can be done?

  1. Steve Last May 25, 2011 / 1:01 am

    I agree that everything possible needs to be done to ensure that the absolute minimum of food is wasted, and changing people’s perception of what remains wholseome to eat, although it may not measure up to our expectations of supermarket food, would help.
    However, we can also take measures to make the best possible use of food waste when it occurs, by recognising that the energy and fertiliser, plus soil structure improving by-products of digested food waste can all be realised by using the anaerobic digestion process.
    Using this process to first extract the energy and then the liquid and solid/fibre residues after anaerobic digestion, to a large extent avoids the value of the food from being lost. See http://anaerobic-digestion.com for more information.
    Whatever happens, in my view food waste should never be sent to landfill as its very high COD organic content adds greatly to the potential of a landfill to cause pollution, and encourage odours while still open.

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