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Waste not or not to waste there is a question?

Food waste is a challenge to actors at every point in the global food chain, and as the scope of the food system increases, the scale of waste becomes even greater. To reverse this trend we must understand how food waste operates throughout the system and look at the startups and companies trying to tackle this problem in different ways.

We all grew up with our mothers telling us not to waste food, usually with a reproach like, “there are starving children in the world!” when we didn’t want to finish our meatloaf. It turns out that our mothers were right (as they often are); there are almost a billion people suffering from malnutrition in the world and whether we finished our dinners or not, this is a serious and worsening problem for the planet. The problem of food waste extends further than our own meals though, and while consumer awareness is important it will take more than that to effect real change to the system. We are facing an institutional crisis: up to one third of all of the food produced on the planet is squandered before it even reaches our plates. At every point in the global food supply chain, waste contributes to an inefficient system that perpetuates dysfunction and fails to reach the people who need it most. How can we transform this system to make it work for everyone, and to bring good food to people around the world? From farm to fork, food is discarded every day, and much of this food is perfectly usable. In fact, the UN recently found that if we were to cut food waste by 25%, there would be enough to feed the entire population. How do we get there? The food tech sector is brimming with ideas on how to stop food waste and change the very nature of the eating economy. However, in order to understand the scope of the problem we must first identify the problem areas throughout the entire food chain, and then look for solutions from those who are working to change it.

The Scale of Food Loss and Food Waste

When food leaves the system it does so in two ways: through food loss and food waste. The distinction is important not only in semantic terms, but actually points to two different phenomena that affect the food system in different ways, and are each more problematic in different contexts.According to the FAO’s “Global Food Losses and Food Waste” report, Food loss refers to “the decrease in edible food mass throughout the part of the supply chain that specifically leads to edible food for human consumption. Food losses take place at production, postharvest and processing stages in the food supply chain.” This loss refers to the product lost through agricultural channels or factors, such as spillage, spoiling,  problems in harvesting, storage, packing, transport, infrastructure or market/price mechanisms, as well as institutional and legal frameworks.

The most important step in transforming the food supply chain to reduce waste involves the transition to a circular economy, where instead of relying on the traditional model of ‘make, use and dispose’, we start thinking of how to extract the maximum amount from the food we use, and then devise new ways to recover and regenerate value from them once they have been exhausted. The European Union has already outlined their action plan for the implementation of a circular economy, and food waste is one of their priority sectors. Notably, the Commission recommends creating a shared platform for all member states, campaigns to increase consumer awareness, and revisiting the use of ‘best before’ labels that are too often confused with expiry dates. Cooperation and awareness on the state and international level is crucial to alleviating waste, and the involvement of bodies like the EU in passing regulations that encourage a circular economy will be instrumental moving forward.

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