Throwing it away – food losses, food waste and retail responsibility
Good job by FAO on this topic, an extremely important one. ‘Global food losses and food waste’ is the title of a new report by FAO and it is an eye opener indeed. FAO has said that food waste is “more a problem in industrialised countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash”. This is true, but only partly.
It is in fact a problem of societies that have industrialised their food handling, processing and retailing systems to the average level that is seen in the OECD economies, and that this problem is therefore as much visible in the urban food consumer markets of say Sao Paulo and Mumbai and Jakarta as it is in North American or west European cities and towns.
The study has shown that 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. The ‘only’ is relative of course. If these averages are mapped to populations and their food wasting habits, then for Bangladesh in 2011 we have a total wastage of 1.275 million tons! What was the total harvest of vegetables in Bangladesh in 2008? It was 1.1 million tons (FAOstat)!
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% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialised countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels. Food losses during harvest and in storage translate into lost income for small farmers and into higher prices for poor consumers, said the report. Reducing losses could therefore have an “immediate and significant” impact on their livelihoods and food security.
There are wider connections between food loss + waste and natural resources and energy. Food loss and waste also amount to a major squandering of resources, including water, land, energy, labour and capital and needlessly produce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global warming and climate change.
What can be done? For a start, selling farm produce closer to consumers, without having to conform to the quality standards of retail markets, is a good suggestion. “This could be achieved through farmers’ markets and farm shops” said the report, which is in fact one of the strengths of the Transition movement in the West.
The real problem lies in the retail labyrinth in urban areas, particularly in fast-industrialising Asia. Here, in rather myopic copycat fashion without any learning having taken place, food is wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasise appearance. My guess is that this report will not have reliability of the kind it ought to for India and China, simply because in Asian cities and towns, a large network of scrap vendors (for food too) exists which will place food rejected by the retail markets into channels used by the urban poor, by small roadside eateries and by micro-businesses in the informal food processing industry.
What the study is cler about is that “consumers in rich countries are generally encouraged to buy more food than they need”. The ‘Buy three, pay for two’ promotions are one example, while the oversized ready-to-eat meals produced by the food industry are another. Restaurants frequently offer fixed-price buffets that spur customers to heap their plates. Generally speaking, consumers fail to plan their food purchases properly, the report found. That means they often throw food away when “best-before” dates expired.
There are some useful numbers in here. The study has shown that the per capita food loss in Europe and North-America is 280-300 kg per year. In Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia it is 120-170 kg per year. The total per capita production of edible parts of food for human consumption is, in Europe and North-America, about 900 kg per year and, in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia, 460 kg per year. Per capita food wasted by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg per year, while this figure in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia is 6-11 kg per year. Food waste at consumer level in industrialised countries (222 million tons) is almost as high as the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tons).