We simply cannot continue to waste up to a third of our food every year. We need to be implementing new and better ways to make the most of what we have rather than filling landfills with quality produce, dairy products and other foods that could have been consumed.
An FAO study highlighted the environmental impacts of food waste. They found food waste consumes significant resources and contributes to land use and degradation, water use and loss of biodiversity.
To put this into context, the estimated global carbon footprint of wasted food is more than twice the GHG emissions of all road transportation in the US. Furthermore, the annual economic cost of wasted food approximates the GDP of Switzerland.
Not something fixed overnight
This is not something that can be fixed overnight as the cause of waste can be complex, differing by geographic region and type of food. It’s also dependent on factors such as climate or infrastructure. This means we need a multipronged approach starting on the farm and ending in the home.
Furthermore globally, 54% of the population now lives in urban areas, and this trend is expected to continue. By 2045, the number of people living in cities will increase by 1.5 times to 6 billion, adding 2 billion more urban residents.
As more people move from farms to cities, there is greater reliance on preparation, distribution and transportation systems to ensure the quality and safety of food and other products.
Consumers, industry and government need to collaborate and work together. For example, in the developed world, a significant amount of food waste is happening in the home. Shopping for only what’s needed and making better use of leftovers can save families money on their grocery bills as well as preventing excess food waste.
Industry also has a major role to play by improving its processes and systems for transporting the produce from the farm through retail to the home.
For example, the packaging industry, often overlooked, plays a central role in reducing waste. Packaging protects products, minimizes spoilage or breakage and preserves the resources invested in the product to ensure it reaches the consumer fit and safe for its intended purpose.
New technologies are also playing a leading role in reducing waste. Modified atmospheric packaging (MAP) breathes at the optimal rate for whatever type of produce it contains, so that it lasts longer.
For example, cherries, if left unprotected, will perish after seven to 14 days. When packaged and handled correctly, their shelf life can extend up to 40 days. Extending the life of food quite simply means it is more likely to be eaten and less likely to end up as waste.
At the other end of the spectrum, governments have opportunities to reduce food waste through appropriate regulations and standards. Some examples include phasing out regulations on the size and shape of fruits and vegetables and addressing “best by” or “use by” dates that cause good products to be thrown out as well as limits on the redistribution of safe surplus food.
If any remaining waste is effectively managed, it can reduce significant GHG emissions from food rotting in landfills. The old adage, prevention rather than cure, has never been more poignant.
Reducing the waste of food already available will be critical to meet the demand of the increasing world population. It will also lower the total impacts and cost of agricultural production, processing and transportation.
Global Food Losses and Food Waste, FAO 2011
Urban Development Overview, The World Bank, 2015
Food Waste Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources, FAO 2013
- David Clark, VP safety, environment and sustainability, leads Amcor’s safety, environmental compliance and sustainability programs, including the EnviroAction program to improve environmental profile of operations and products. He is a member of several organizations, including the Plastic Recycling Corporation of California and the External Advisory Board of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.