Fighting Food Waste with Innovation, Investment, and Education
By guest Blogger Shannon Bergstrom
Imagine if you left the supermarket every time you took one-third of your shopping and threw it straight into the trash. Wasting so much food sounds like something only the crazy would do, but that’s what happens on our planet every day, as an estimated one-third of all the food produced for human consumption ends up lost or wasted. What’s more, a large portion of it never even ends up in our supermarkets or on our plates. How is it possible that such significant quantities of our vital sustenance end up squandered?
Food Waste: What, Why, How Much, and So What?
Food waste happens everywhere in the world, but not all foods are wasted equally. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), roots and tubers such as potatoes and fruits and vegetables are the types of food wasted or lost the most worldwide. Fragile and perishable, over 45% of what is grown, never ends up being consumed. Next are similarly fragile fish and seafood, of which 34.7% lost or wasted. Even though dairy products are the least wasted of all foods, the reality is that 17.1% of all milk and eggs being produced are never consumed.
The vast majority of food loss and waste can be attributed to food spoilage, whether during the production process or at home in our refrigerators. During production or harvesting, transport, and storage, food spoils for various reasons, including cross-contamination, damage due to improper handling, or lack of refrigeration. Consumer-level food spoilage actually happens for many of the same reasons. Items are handled roughly, stored improperly, or simply neglected for too long due to poor visibility in the fridge or cupboard.
What seems like a little on our end can add up: Americans and Europeans throw away an estimated total of 95-115 kilograms of food per person annually. America is the global leader in food waste, with a staggering 80 billion pounds of food left uneaten annually, including 31% of all food purchased by consumers, restaurants, and retailers.
That wasted food then gets sent to landfills, where it rots and produces the destructive greenhouse gas methane. This happens so often that food makes up the largest proportion of municipal landfills in the US, which in turn are the third-largest contributors of human-related methane emissions. In addition to the immense amount of resources lost in producing food that will never be consumed, these methane emissions make food waste one of the most significant environmental problems of our time.
Food waste isn’t just detrimental to the environment, but also to our society. Losing over one-third of our food supply means that farmers have to work harder to produce enough through agricultural expansion and more intensive farming practices. Our food system’s inefficiencies also mean that this lost and wasted food cannot be used to help the over 800 million people around the world who are undernourished.
Preventing Food Loss and Waste
What can be done to stop this from happening? There are, of course, economic forces at play in food waste, such as oversupply, market crashes, and surplus purchasing on the part of consumers. But from a supply chain and safety perspective, minimizing food loss due to spoilage, in particular, is key to helping solve the food waste problem.
First is the estimated 54% of food loss and waste that happens upstream in the supply chain. Protecting the food supply against loss at these stages requires investment and innovation, particularly in developing regions where the vast majority of food is lost upstream. Problems here often stem from lack of access to refrigeration and reliable energy sources to power it.
In particular, tropical regions suffer from high levels of produce and seafood loss and require fundamental investment in infrastructure to improve the situation. Innovations in cold chain technology developed especially for such circumstances are also crucial to overcoming the hurdles of keeping food fresh.
Some are also harnessing technology to minimize supply chain food loss in developed countries, such as with innovative packaging or by using IoT devices to generate data that helps manage goods on a highly-detailed level to ensure everything is utilized before it spoils. But just as in developing regions, the bottom line is that those who produce food need access to sufficient knowledge, equipment, and infrastructure to ensure it doesn’t spoil.
At the consumer level, eliminating food waste requires education. American households throw away roughly 150,000 tons of food each day, much of it being highly perishable foods like fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy. Consumers tend to purchase too much, which often ends up spoiling because it is stored incorrectly or gets “lost” in a full refrigerator.
Yet even the most well-meaning consumers also dispose of perfectly good food because they lack understanding of things like what parts of foods are edible, the real meanings of “use-by” product dates, how to tell if something is still good, and how to use items that are past their prime.
Speaking of product dates, throwing away unspoiled food due to misunderstanding of food dates is thought to account for 20% of household food waste in the US. And how could anyone blame consumers? Product dating is not legally required or regulated, so dates can be arbitrarily selected by manufacturers or even omitted altogether.
Although they are often determined on the conservative side to protect companies, neither sell-by, best before, or use-by dates are explicitly related to product safety and are not “expiration dates,” as commonly thought. Along with fostering a better understanding of food freshness among consumers, standardized product dating in consideration of food safety would go a long way in reducing waste without compromising safety.
Food loss and waste are an environmental problem and an issue that puts immense strain on our global food supply. Preventing food spoilage through investments, innovations, and education is key to creating an efficient food system that minimizes loss while simultaneously promoting improved food safety overall.
Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED Green Associate, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS , a tech-driven waste and recycling Management Company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices.