Waste Not, Want not – its time to rewire the food system

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The Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IME) released a report today titled Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not. The report looks at practices along the food supply chain around the world. Some of the numbers it produces are staggering, although unfortunately not particularly surprising:

  • 30-50% of food produced globally is lost or wasted every year before consumption.
  • 30% UK veg crops are not harvested due to failing to meet supermarkets’ cosmetic standards
  • 46% of UK potatoes grown are not delivered to retail: 6% are lost in the field, 12% are discarded no initial inspection, 5% are lost in storage, 1% are lost in post-storage inspection, 22% are lost when rejected after washing.
  • Seven million tonnes (worth £10.2bn) of food in the UK is thrown away every year costing the average household £480. This amounts to £15,000-£24,000 over a lifetime.
  • £1bn of food wasted is still ‘in-date’ and edible. If this were not wasted, the saving in energy consumption (including production, packaging and transport) would be equivalent to taking 20% of cars off the road.

These numbers and statistics are being broadcast far and wide in the press today but there is a lot more in this report about the food system and supply chain that should be recognised.

Global diets are changing. Developing countries are shifting dietary preferences from cereals and grains to animal products. A lot more energy is needed for livestock production than crop production. In terms of land, one hectare can feed 19-22 people per year on rice or potatoes. That same area of land would only produce enough lamb or beef to feed one or two people. In terms of water, (depending on climate etc.) between 500 and 4,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg wheat whereas 5,000 to 20,000 litres of water are needed to produce 1kg meat. In terms of energy, 3 calories of energy are needed to create 1 calorie of edible plant material, compared to 35 calories needed to create 1 calorie of beef.

“This clearly has implications for sustainability if global dietary trends continue to move towards high meat content.”

While food costs in the UK are rising, we still spend a smaller percentage of our salaries on food than most people around the world. It is as a result of this undervaluing of food that consumers are ready to throw food away but so much of this food has travelled the world before landing on our plates.

“Regardless of…where in the food chain the food is wasted, its loss is not a loss merely of the nutritious material itself but also of the land, water and energy resources that were expended in its production, processing and distribution to the point of loss.”

Consumer habits in relation to food do need to change. This will occur through education, through sharing facts and figures like these and through the gradual realisation that food is not a cheap commodity, it is a product of all our natural resources. Habits can be changed, such as cooking with leftovers and eating less meat. It will just take some information and skills sharing. But supply chain issues also need to be addressed.

“30% of food harvested from the field never actually reaches the marketplace.”

Food is lost due to trimming, inadequate or prolonged storage, and getting knocked about in transportation. To counter this, the IME calls for existing infrastructure to be updated and changes in education, training and management systems to be installed. Whilst updating the infrastructure itself, we can also update the way we use it.

We are currently able to pick strawberries in Cornwall, chill them immediately, transport them to Yorkshire to be packaged and labelled and then have them returned so we can buy ‘local’ strawberries in the supermarket at the end of the road only 3 days later (after 30% have been lost en route due to bruising). But what if, instead, farmers were able to supply retailers directly? What if we could cut out all this jargon in the middle? The amount of energy used to create the end product would be reduced as fewer warehouses, chillers and vehicles are needed. The food would be much fresher when its bought affording consumers more time to eat it before it expires in the fruit bowl.

Increasing food prices will mean this is no longer economically viable for supermarkets to reject crops on cosmetic grounds. But as the IME says; governments should not wait for food pricing to trigger action on this wasteful practice, but instead proactively pursue food policy initiatives that dissuade retailers from acting in this way. We hope the Groceries code Adjudicator will go some way towards addressing this, but in the meantime, another route to market needs to be opened up to making it economically worthwhile for the farmer to harvest the crop. Similarly, gluts of produce should find a route to market to meet the gap left by wasted produce. If we rewire the food chain so there are many routes to market and shorter supply chains getting there, we can reduce  the amount of waste occuring before it reaches the marketplace.

Looking at the numbers on waste in general, if we are currently wasting 30-50% of food produced and our population is expected to grow 35% to 9.5bn people in 2075, then actually we already have enough food to feed everyone. We just need to change our attitudes and find new ways to work the system.

“It is time to redress the balance, recognise the value of food, and work towards helping feed future generations through vigorous efforts to reduce waste.”



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