Tackling food waste

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals aim to halve food loss and waste by 2030, but a new study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) shows that this ambitious goal is becoming increasingly distant. However, improved consumer behaviour, government regulation, and supply chain infrastructure and efficiency could have a significant impact.

Every year, almost 1.6 billion tonnes of food are lost, equivalent to an economic loss of 1.06 trillion Euros. Within three years, food waste increased by as much as 20 percent. This means that about one third of the food produced worldwide ends up in waste. At a time when approximately 870 million people around the world are undernourished, solving the world´s hunger problem seems unimaginable.

More at risk than just food loss

If food becomes waste, it has far-reaching consequences. Every piece of meat, bread, fruit or vegetable missing from the plate not only exacerbates the hunger problem in poorer countries, but also has a damaging effect on the climate and the environment. Waste of food accounts for 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

According to research calculations, 295 billion trees would be needed to compensate for this amount of CO2 and other harmful gases. In addition, the requirement for water and arable land is considerable. Around a quarter of the world’s water consumption is used to grow food that is not consumed in the end.

National differences in where food is wasted

Food loss is roughly equal in most countries across the entire production and consumption chain. In wealthier countries, almost half of the edible waste is caused by gastronomy and consumers, whereas in developing countries consumers are less responsible. On the other hand, losses in harvesting, storage and processing are higher in these nations. In many places, higher losses result from a lack of efficient technologies, modern machinery and relevant knowledge.

According to BCG, 32 percent of the world’s unused food is already lost on the farm, and another 46 percent in storage, processing and trade. Only 22 percent of all lost food ends up in the waste bin at home. Drawing on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, this shows that companies in particular need to rethink their approach, so BCG.

Intervention needed at all stages

German scientist Uwe Schneidewind is convinced that in order to combat the problems of overproduction and waste in manufacture and transport, politicians would also have to intervene more strongly. He criticises the fact that consumers are currently given the greatest blame in food waste. The loss of food must be combated at all stages of the production and consumption chain, urges Schneidewind, head of the Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Wuppertal, Germany.

The study authors of the Boston Consulting Group are also pushing in this direction. Companies in agriculture, the food industry and trade could make a significant contribution to securing food worldwide. Experts predict that prudent management could reduce the global damage caused by wasted food by almost 600 billion Euros.

They propose a multi-stage plan. First of all, it is important to know exactly where losses occur in the company and how high they are. With continuous cold chains, transport losses are reduced. Further starting points are optimised warehousing and fast processing. Companies should also cooperate more closely with farmers and focus more on regional and frozen products, according to the research group.

Change in supply chain

Above all, however, the consultants are calling for more government regulation. In France, for example, a law has been in force for two years that prohibits large distributors from disposing of edible food. One step in the right direction could be a tax on aviation fuel. Since kerosene is not taxed, it is lucrative to transport food over long distances. “The supply chain would change radically if we taxed kerosene in a similar way to fuel or railway power,” says Schneidewind. If nothing happens, the problem will only get worse, according to BCG.

It is predicted that the amount of wasted food could rise to 2.1 billion tonnes by 2030. At the same time, the world population is expected to grow by around one billion to 8.5 billion people. Feeding them is regarded as one of the greatest challenges of the future.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, flickr/Creative Commons

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