Last weekend was one of the country's biggest BBQ blowouts, and you can bet that a lot of that food will go to waste. But it's not just national pig-outs that lead to large amounts of food eventually hitting the landfills. Food waste is a year-round problem. Just how much food goes to waste each year, and why?
One-third of edible food worldwide is wasted, amounting to about 1.3 billion tons every year. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases next to China and the U.S. It would also have the second largest land mass behind Russia, with about 5.4 million square miles or nearly 30% of agricultural land used for producing food that never gets eaten. Yikes. Its full costs, including environmental and societal impacts, amount to USD 2.6 trillion per year, about the same as the 2016 GDP of the United Kingdom.
Food waste happens at all levels of the supply chain, from farming and storage to processing, distribution, and consumption, but losses vary depending on where you are in the world.
In developing countries, food loss is significantly higher in the early stages of production mainly due to poor storage, packaging, and transport facilities as well as inefficient harvesting and processing techniques. Meanwhile, more than 40% of food waste in affluent countries are at the retail and consumption level. Perfectly edible food is often discarded because of unreasonable aesthetic standards and misguided concerns over sell-by and best-before dates.
Solving a problem of this magnitude entails multi-pronged solutions that cover infrastructure improvements, standardized regulations, data analysis, human resources training, and behavior change programs.
The Food and Agriculture Organization runs various projects in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific regions to reduce post-harvest losses. Initiatives include establishing efficient storage and transport systems for produce and training farmers on good harvest practices.
Technology startups are also seeking to have a more substantial role in reducing food waste. Companies such as Imperfect Produce, Oddbox, and Fishbox sell “ugly” or surplus produce and by-catch seafood that are usually rejected by major supermarkets. A software engineer developed a similar app in Nigeria called Chowberry, which enables retailers to sell food items nearing their expiration date to low-income consumers at a cheaper price. Others like Food Cowboy and Spoiler Alert connect businesses with unsold inventory to non-profit groups such as food banks and shelters.
Advances in packaging technology can also help both in prolonging the shelf life of food products and in influencing consumer behavior. Packaging company It’s Fresh! produces a filter paper that absorbs ethylene, a fruit-ripening hormone, while Mitsubishi Gas Chemical has developed an oxygen-absorbing resin which can double the shelf life and protect the original flavors of some food items. Other entrepreneurs are exploring the use of edible materials like mushroom, milk, and seaweed to make packaging containers in order to decrease non-biodegradable waste. Meanwhile, a bakery in the UK took a more simple yet effective approach of selling smaller loaves to reduce the amount of wasted bread.
While these developments are encouraging, serious challenges remain in combating food waste. Many developing countries still lack sufficient access to cold chain technology, processing facilities, and stable energy sources. There are major data gaps on quantities of food waste by individual and costs of food loss prevention. There is still no comprehensive regulation on food date labeling; the Food Recovery Act, which aims to standardize food date labels, is pending in the U.S. Congress.
So, while many budding companies are working to ameliorate this immense problem, food waste is a globalized, multi-sector issue and requires concerted efforts among governments, producers, businesses, academics, and consumers.