Food plays a pivotal role in shaping society with its abundance or dearth impacting all facets of life. The first industrial revolution transformed the way economies functioned and with food being an immensely valuable commodity, for much of the mid-1800s to the early 20th century, food wastage was dissuaded. The periods of rationing during the world wars also had governments pushing for minimal wastage. The rapid globalization and green revolution allowed for mass production of cheap foods from the 1930s. With the increasing complexity of food chains, consumers become increasingly disconnected from the production and disposal of food and food waste become invisible. The abundance of food impacted the cultural relevance and economic value attached to it, completely flipping earlier attitudes (Evans et al., 2012). In the mid-2000s the realization that a third of all globally produced food, worth US$ 990 billion was wasted, was jarring especially in the face of the global food crises of 2008 (Evans et al., 2012). The environmental impacts of food waste are not just limited to the greenhouse gas emissions (3.3 Gigatons of CO2) as a result of rotting in landfills but also to the significant land (1.4 billion hectares) water (footprint 250 km3) and unquantifiable biodiversity loss (FAO, 2013). With 800 million people worldwide still food insecure, food waste becomes a highly political, social and economic issue, highlighting the underlying systemic issues with the current food system and the inequalities that have persisted (Alexander et al., 2013). The strain that food production puts on the planetary boundaries in the face of climate change and an ever-increasing population has spurred global organizations and countries into developing strategies and targets to reduce food waste. This essay will focus on the causes of food losses occurring in the supply chain and critically examine the industry initiatives and governments policies that were introduced to combat food loss.
FAO defines food loss as “A decrease in mass (dry matter) or nutritional value (quality) of food that was originally intended for human consumption, caused by inefficiencies in the food supply chains, such as poor infrastructure and logistics, lack of technology, insufficient skills, knowledge and management capacity of supply chain actors, and lack of access to markets”.
Food waste is defined as “food appropriate for human consumption being discarded, whether or not after it is kept beyond its expiry date or left to spoil. Often this is because food has spoiled but it can be for other reasons such as oversupply due to markets, or individual consumer shopping/eating habits”. The term food wastage encompasses them both (FAO, 2013).
The current food production levels can meet the needs of 10 billion people (Lee & Soma, 2016) hence identifying the causes of food wastage is of paramount importance if any successful policy intervention is to be planned. Successful food wastage reduction while mitigating the negative environmental effects, in no way guarantees more equitable distribution of food and hence it does not necessarily pose as a solution to attain the No Hunger goal laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals (Pinstrup-Andersen et al., 2016). Food wastage in developed countries ranges from 280–300 kg/person/year while in developing countries it varies from 120–170 kg/person/year (Pinstrup-Andersen et al., 2016). In developed countries post-harvest food losses account for the majority of the wastage while in developed nations the waste is more apparent at the consumer end (FAO, 2013). Often policy focus is primarily on these food wastage hotspots, but it is important to acknowledge that these are not isolated stages and location should not be conflated with cause, the effect of the practices followed at a particular stage can reverberate throughout the system and affect waste generation at other levels, and hence a more holistic approach is required to combat the current food wastage crises (Gille, 2012).
Food wastage whether intentional or unintentional happens at every stage of the food chain starting from primary production. Food production for most farmers is often a risky endeavor with uncertainty related to weather, potential disease outbreaks, global market price fluctuation, evolving consumer preferences and they face additional constraints depending on the governmental and retail regulations in the region (Gille, 2012). Inefficiencies during primary production and manufacturing in developing countries stem from insufficient financial and structural support, limited access to technological innovations, and lack efficient storage and distribution channels which lead to increased occurrence of spoilage (FAO, 2013).To combat food losses, governments in developing countries like Afghanistan, Kenya, Bangladesh, etc., with the aid of organization like The International Fund For Agricultural Development have been developing schemes to ensure greater access to technological and infrastructural innovations to ensure more efficient production, storage and distribution (IFAD, 2019). Simple modifications have the potential to greatly reduce losses, as seen in the case of Afghanistan where United Nations aid used to make silos for crop storage reduced food loss due to pest and rot from 20% to 2% (FAO, 2013). The policies of developed countries like agricultural subsidies promoting excessive production, can also impact food waste in a different part of the world (Gille, 2012). Euthopia, despite having an alarmingly high Global Hunger Index score of 55.9, indicative of widespread food and nutritional insecurity (Global Hunger Index, 2019), still generates food waste. It gets American aid in the form of food grains, this caused a collapse of market for their own domestic produce, leading to waste generation. Apart from raising food waste levels these kinds of practices also lead to greater economic duress impacting the country’s ability to become self-reliant (Gille, 2012).
While in industrialized nations the primary production and post harvesting methods are very efficient, even then there is significant discard at the farm level, like in the case of Australia where 20-25% of fresh produce never makes it way to consumers. In developed countries contractual agreements which allow retailers to set strict cosmetic standards, price control, allow for last minute order cancellations or unwarranted reduction in purchase volume due to inaccurate inventory forecasting lead to food losses (Devine & Richards, 2018). Adhering to strict cosmetic standards means that products need to meet a specific shape, size, color, etc., criteria to be deemed acceptable by retailers and growers produce surplus to ensure that they can produce enough yield that will comply with the standards. In this way retailers flex their powers, forcing overproduction and resulting in waste being diverted to producers who face the economic loss and face moral judgement for being environmentally irresponsible while supermarkets achieve their low waste targets. Unbeknownst to the consumers, they are often cited by the supermarkets as being the drivers that lead to normalizing of these massive discards, through their expectation of perfect produce and fast changing preferences (Ghosh & Erriksson, 2019) though surveys have proved that consumer value taste more, independent of physical appearance (Gustavsson et al., 2011). Acknowledging grower’s inability to manipulate nature and aimed at reducing food wastage retailers have started selling these ‘ugly’ produce with Tesco’s ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ range, Woolworth’s ‘The Odd Bunch’ range and the ‘I’m Perfect’ range by Coles (Devine & Richards, 2018). Critics of this move call for relaxation of the quality standards and encourage incorporating these into their normal range instead, stating that the introduction of a cheaper imperfect range leading to undervaluing perfectly good produce. The regulations stated by the European Union for 26 fresh produce including bananas, carrots, capsicum were relaxed in 2008, but their sale still requires for their perceived imperfections to be acknowledged on the labels, despite nutritionally being at par with their normal counterparts and till date various other products like apples, citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, lettuces, peaches, nectarines, pears, strawberries, grapes and tomatoes have to adhere to these strict cosmetic standards (Gille, 2012).
Supermarkets serve as the link between producers and consumers and this gives them enormous power and influence within the food system. The procurement system set in place by retailers allows them to sell food products at a relatively inexpensive price, in industrialized nations this combined with easy access to storage technologies like refrigeration has led to consumer’s undervaluing of food, making thoughtless discarding practices commonplace (Evans and Welch, 2015). Food manufacturers not only have to be content with smaller margins due to the cost at which supermarkets sell goods to maintain their competitive edge, they often must absorb the additional financial loss incurred in disposing off the unsold products (Devine & Richards, 2018). Retailers not only cause waste generation at primary production and manufacture level but they have also believed to have a hand in encouraging waste at household level. An ever-expanding range of goods promotional offers like ‘Buy one get one free’, the presence of heavily discounted goods, large packaging, confusing food date labelling, subtle psychological cues relating to product location, size of basket, all encourage increased unplanned purchases by consumers, which in turn increase food waste at household level (Lee & Soma, 2016). Recently in a bid to reduce food waste, some supermarkets like Sainsburys and Tesco phased out the Bogof for perishable food commodities, but with part of their pledge also promising to deliver lower regular prices for all products instead, critics have been skeptical of any actual impact on consumer wastage levels, stating these will only ensure continued financial growth and goodwill for the retailer not much else (Morley, 2016) In developing countries, a greater dependence on mobile venders for fresh produce and more frequent shopping is believed to limit over purchasing (Lee & Soma, 2016) and hence their 4-16% food waste rates as compared to the 31-39% in the developed nations (FAO, 2013).
Supermarkets with their aisles overflowing with product and constant stock replenishments to attract customers inevitably end up with a lot of stock past it’s sell by date, despite this food waste at retail level is minimal as compared to the rest of the system. As a part of their corporate social responsibility, supermarkets have been donating food to food relief organization, and despite food redistribution being of the most viable process described in the waste management hierarchy, many believe that financial motivations not an altruistic mindset drives these kinds of self-regulatory efforts. In the 2000s, aimed at reducing landfill waste countries in the EU, UK, Australia, New Zealand all increased their landfill taxes, this aimed to give value to waste diverting it towards less environmentally degrading waste treatments, while not exclusively aimed at reducing food waste, this is believed to be chiefly responsible for pushing supermarkets towards more financially viable alternatives like donating to food banks, which also makes them eligible for tax cuts (Devine & Richards, 2018). Coles and Woolworths in Australia have been pushing for zero waste in stores by donating to food relief organization and using excess food as animal feed and composting, while reducing food waste, they often come under fire for excessive avoidable plastic packaging and using non-recyclable plastic toys as marketing gimmicks, raising doubts about their commitment for waste reduction (Hall, 2019). Tesco and Aldi in the UK voluntarily committed to halving food waste by 2030 unlike the other chains that have stuck to the 20% reduction outlined in the Courtauld Commitment, but the former has been criticized for relegating most of the landfill food waste to incinerators instead and with food donated accounting for only 39% of the food waste (Dickinson, 2018). Targeted at reducing consumer level food waste, Sainsbury’s short-lived pilot project provided educational and technological solutions, but achieving a mere 9% reduction was scrapped (Dickinson, 2018). Inconsistent decisions made by retailers hence lead to decreasing confidence in their ability to reduce food waste in the absence of strictly enforced government.