The UN claims that Food production must double by 2050 to meet the demand of the
world's growing population. However, most of the worlds productive farmland is
already in use, so increased food production will require extending intensive farming
methods with greater use of pesticides and fertilisers leading to the increased release
of greenhouse gases. Paradoxically, UK government policy is attempting to deal with
both of these problems simultaneously with plans to "boost food production in Britain
and reduce its impact on the environment" . Is this realistic, or is there an easier
Calculations based on waste and calorie intake suggest that the UK has access to
at least double the food necessary for adequate nutrition. Since farming, retail
and eating habits are probably similar throughout the developed world, this implies
there is no real food crisis in terms of the amount produced, only in how it is consumed.
Therefore, a better strategy must be to focus on reducing food waste rather than
growing more. This would minimise the impact on the environment, reduce food expenditure,
and achieve better food security with a healthier lifestyle for the population.
Using our present methods, significant food waste occurs at all stages of the food
industry. The first waste stream occurs at the production stage due to damage and
accidental harvesting through weather, pestilence and machinery, resulting in unsuitable
quality and appearance. In storage, losses can be attributed to pests and micro-organisms
causing reductions in the nutritional values and edibility of food. Further losses
are generated during processing and packaging due to the handling of food and by
shrinkage in weight or volume. Whilst foods which contradict safety standards need
to be removed from the food chain, such regulations can conflict with efforts to
reuse food waste such as in animal feed. The amount of food wasted before arriving
at the retailer is unknown but may amount to at least 20% of that farmed.
Of the food which arrives at the retailer 5% is wasted due to exceeding 'use by'
dates and package damage. Dr Martin Caraher, an expert in food policy at City University
in London, says: “Use-By dates are in retailers financial interests. If customers
throw food away, they have to replace it by buying even more. Use-By dates can be
a happy accident for them" .
The largest waste stream is by the consumers themselves who throw away 30% of all
preventable wasted purchased food. Whilst a proportion of this is discarded by being
left uneaten on the plate or unserved, much food is rejected for being unfresh or
beyond the 'use by' date of the package label. Whilst this could be blamed on poor
domestic management, consumers are heavily influenced by marketing practices, and
have limited control over purchase quantities and the packaging of food, which are
the responsibility of the food industry.
In total, according to these calculations, only about 45% of the food actually farmed
is actually necessary for adequate nutrition, and most of the remaining 55% of waste
is preventable, amounting to the equivalent of 72 million tonnes of greenhouse gases
per year in the UK. This is approximately 10% of the total UK output and almost
as much as its entire transport system!
There have been previous initiatives to reduce food waste. The official UK government
line is that "most of the major supermarket retailers in the UK ….have committed
to work with the Government's waste-reduction programme (WRAP) to identify ways they
can help us, their customers, to reduce the amount of food thrown away".
However, are we taking a too lenient line with the food industry? The Sustainable
Development Commission thinks so. It condemned targets set by WRAP as "unambitious
and lacking urgency". with multi-buy promotions helping to fuel waste and obesity
in Britain. Mr Lang, who is also professor of food policy at City University, London
said that three years ago, the government-funded WRAP left it up to supermarkets
to find voluntary "solutions to food waste" in an agreement dubbed the Courtauld
Commitment. "The Government is frankly not using its leverage adequately. It really
should toughen up on Courtauld, which must be enforced because this is ludicrous”.
An 18-month study, which found that "too many supermarket practices are still unhealthy,
unjust and unsustainable", said Wrap should adopt a "more aspirational approach to
reducing waste in food retail by setting longer-term targets and [supporting] a culture
of zero waste" .
All this suggests that voluntary regulations are either ineffective or far too slow
to take effect. The bottom line is that waste is endemic to contemporary economic
ideology because corporate obligations require them to increase growth and profits
and an effective means of achieving this is by encouraging excessive public consumption.
Until these objectives are replaced with ones that are more beneficial to society
than businesses, any significant progress in meeting sustainable targets without
imposing strong regulations will be very limited.
Based on this information it is possible to draw up a list of obligations that could
be imposed on the food industry to significantly reduce food waste.
1 Retailers should be obliged to stock a proportion of food, that would be presently
rejected due to appearance, but otherwise meets safety standards. This could be
marketed as cheap 'sustainable' produce in addition to, or possibly in preference
to expensive organic foods which are of dubious health and environmental benefits.
2 Hotels, Restaurants and other communal places of eating could purchase this sustainable
produce to meet their environmental targets. The food could can be re-cut for aesthetic
value or simply merged with other foods in pies & stews etc.
3 Retailers should be obliged to sell all stocked food by a 'use by' date or pay
a tax that should be set high enough to discourage waste. One method of achieving
this would be to introduce a variable pricing mechanism based on the demand throughout
the sale period which is gradually reduced to near zero by the use by date.
4 Damaged packets should be re-labelled as low carbon pet food or animal feed if
this doesn't endanger safety, or if this is not possible, biodegraded using composting
and anaerobic digestion to produce methane for fuel and enrich agricultural soil.
5 To avoid consumer waste, all foods should be purchasable in smaller amounts at
a constant unit price and separated into compact sealable units to ensure they are
kept fresh as long as possible. This would avoid excess buying which often leads
6 Retail policies that lead to excess buying should be discouraged. These include
moving items around the store and placing essentials at the rear of store to encourage
coverage and residence time. Retail promotion and prominent positioning that encourages
purchasing should also be reserved for sustainable products.
7 When new products are introduced small samples should always be offered, so as
to avoid buying large quantities of unwanted food.
8 Unnecessary purchases and impulse buying could be minimised by avoiding trips
to the retailer altogether through Internet ordering and cost competitive and environmental
delivery schemes such as the COAST system suggested in this report. This purchasing
system would help consumers manage shopping more efficiently via web based shopping
lists, by anticipating when a new item is needed from the date and their purchasing
history. This system would reduce waste and excess eating by minimising any excess
food lying around the home.
9 Restaurants and fast food outlets should always offer the option of smaller portions
with a proportionate reduction in price. Private servings are obviously more difficult
to reduce; however, promoting a general culture of rejecting waste and extravagance
should be nurtured amongst the public.
10 Health advice needs to consider promoting more durable foods in preference to
perishable fruit and vegetables if these offer a more practical, equally nutritious
and 'low carbon' alternative.
11 Temperature sensitive strips could be placed on selected packages that warn the
consumer if the fridge thermostat has been set too low.
12 Set tough annual targets for reduced waste throughout the food industry
These measures should increase the worlds food supply by reducing food waste rather
than increasing production with a corresponding benefit for the environment.
Let’s not be reticent about confronting businesses and politicians with these ideas
if they claim to be genuinely concerned about minimising waste, and ensure we are
not fobbed of with offers of voluntary measures and greenwash!
Note: 13th January 2011
The newly released Agrimonde project quotes 25% food loss and wastage amongst OECD
countries, I wonder if this figure is accurate?
The world’s population is projected to pass 9 billion in 2050. An important new study
asks the question: Can nine billion people be fed sustainably?
The Agrimonde project, organized by France’s National Institute for Agricultural
Research (INRA) and International Agricultural Research for Development Center (CIRAD)
has been researching this question for several years. The final report, Scenarios
and Challenges for Feeding the World in 2050, was released this week.......The report
concludes that both scenarios would produce enough food, but that the Agrimonde GO
scenario would lead to significant environmental degradation. Agrimonde 1 would allow
production to expand sustainably, if three conditions are met:
The food model that now prevails in industrialized countries must be changed, and
not extended elsewhere. Changes required include reducing excessive food consumption,
eliminating food loss and wastage, which currently amounts to 25% in the OECD countries.
Agricultural production must become ecologically sound. Changes required include
the implementation of more ecologically friendly production processes, and more efficient
use of fossil fuels. Agricultural must take advantage both of the latest scientific
advances and of traditional agricultural knowledge.
The international trade in agricultural and food products must become more reliable.
Trade between the OECD countries, the former USSR, and Latin America on one hand,
and Africa, Asia and the Middle East, needs to be regulated for greater stability.