Time to wage war against food waste

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Food loss and waste refers to the edible parts of plants and animals that are produced or harvested for human consumption but that are not ultimately consumed by people. In particular, “food loss” refers to food that spills, spoils, incurs an abnormal reduction in quality such as bruising or wilting, or otherwise gets lost before it reaches the consumer. It is the unintended result of an agricultural process or technical limitation in storage, infrastructure, packaging, or marketing. On the other hand, Food waste -refers to food that is of good quality and fit for human consumption but that does not get consumed because it is discarded—either before or after it spoils. This is usually the result of negligence or a conscious decision to throw food away.

Food loss can either be attributed to reduction in the volume or weight of food available for human consumption or, to a loss in the nutritional value, caloric value and edibility of crops. The latter are more difficult to assess.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 32 percent of all food produced in the world was lost or wasted in 2009, an estimate based on weight. When converted into calories, global food loss and waste amounts to approximately 24 percent of all food produced. Essentially, one out of every four food calories intended for people is not ultimately consumed by them.

In developing countries, more than 40% of losses occur at the postharvest and processing stages, while in the developed countries, more than 40% of losses occur at the retail and consumer levels. The total food waste by consumers in industrialized countries (222 million tons) is almost equal to the entire food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons). FAO study 2011.

Food loss and waste have many negative economic and environmental impacts. Economically, they represent a wasted investment that can reduce farmers’ incomes and increase consumers’ expenses.

Environmentally, food loss and waste inflict a host of impacts, including unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and inefficiently used water and land, which in turn can lead to diminished natural ecosystems and the services they provide.

Roots and tubers experience the greatest amount of loss and waste―63% on a caloric basis. 42% is the rate for fruits and vegetables, and about a quarter of cereals and seafood produced are lost or wasted.
As earlier noted, there is a difference in the nature and magnitude of food loss and waste between developing and developed countries as they occur along the stages in the value chain. For developing countries, more losses occur early in the value chain especially at production and post-harvest handling

In developing countries, poor storage facilities give room for many factors that affect food availability both qualitative and quantitatively. These include among others warmth/ humidity that can cause rot in fruits and discolouration in grains; rodents that consume part of the produce; fungi that create poisons like aflatoxin in the grains; poor packaging that can cause physical loss during transportation and retail of food; poor infrastructure and transportation that cause damage to the food and food spoilage especially for fresh foods due to delays; inadequate market facilities; and unsanitary, crowded and poor refrigeration.

In developed countries, more losses happen in the later stages of the value chain. Food is normally discarded as a result of failure to adhere to standards and during manufacture at sorting, trimming and transportation stages. At the retail stores, extreme or unfavourable temperatures cause losses significantly in fruits and vegetables. Many times food is still safe to eat at the best before date indicated on its packaging but it is thrown away once the date reaches. Additionally, many households in developed countries throw away a lot of food as left overs because of excesses during cooking, preparation and serving.

Big inefficiencies suggest big savings opportunities. It is estimated that if the current rate of food loss and waste were cut in half―by the year 2050, the world would need about 1,314 trillion kilocalories (kcal) less food per year than it would in the business-as-usual global food requirements scenario.

The world faced an analogous failure of efficiency in the 1970s with energy. In the face of record oil prices and growing demand, the world waged war on energy wastefulness and significantly improved its energy efficiency. Yet a “war on waste” has yet to be waged when it comes to food. With food prices recently hitting historic highs and global food demand continuing to rise, now is the time.

This non-exhaustive list hints at the spectrum of approaches that could be available across selected stages of the food value chain to reduce food loss and waste. We shall high-light some of them in our subsequent newsletters.

James Kaija Amooti
Executive Director, Food Talk Uganda