n our previous conversation on food security, Dr. Tim Fox discussed the importance of the food-water-energy nexus. According to Dr. Fox, food could well be the defining sustainability challenge of the 21st Century as emerging market populations grow and shift away from grain-based diets to a preference for animal-based foods.
Yet at the moment, societies produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet and could even feed larger populations. To accomplish this, the serious issue of food wastage requires urgent attention. It’s estimated that between 30-50% of all food produced ends up being rejected, lost, or thrown away along with the natural capital – water, energy and land – used for food production.
For more on this, we once again spoke with Dr. Fox.
GreenLeaders DC: Waste is another key aspect of food security. What is the scale of food wastage?
Tim Fox: Food wastage is a serious issue and has an important role in environmental degradation and risk, in which climate change potentially plays a big part. As the global population increases and dietary preferences move towards animal-based from plant-based diets, addressing food wastage will in large part determine if we reach our sustainability goals. Right now, every year, we produce around four billion tons of food globally and adequately feed around six billion people on somewhere between a half and two-thirds of that production. And I say six billion because around one billion people go to bed hungry every night. So feeding another three-four billion should be plausible without massive increases in food production. The key is to reduce food wastage by tackling waste in the mature developed countries of the world and loss in the infrastructure of developing economies.
GreenLeaders DC: Where is all this food being wasted?
Tim Fox: Food waste is really a consumer-driven issue. That’s not to say that some food isn’t lost in the distribution systems of mature economies, because that does occur to some degree. But consumer cultures in places like the U.S., U.K., EU and other developed nations are the real drivers of waste. There are three main elements to the problem. One is retailer practices, two is consumer behaviour, and three is the culture of the hospitality industry. Retailer issues include sales promotions like buy one get one free, etc. that encourage over consumption. Another is the use of confusing sell-by dates. Then you have crop rejections. Here in the UK, for example, around 20-30 percent of the perishable crop, so that’s fruit and vegetables, is rejected in the field because it’s not the right size, color, or shape. And the supermarket contracts are such that the farmer is not able to sell that produce on through local markets or other outlets. So that food, and the water, energy, and land – the natural capital – that went into producing it is wasted. Overall, about 40% of the food in developed economies ends up as landfill. When you combine that with food waste that goes to other disposal routes, and losses in the infrastructure of the developing world, you end up with an estimate of between 30-50% of food being wastage on a global scale.
GreenLeaders DC: How can this food waste challenge be addressed?
Tim Fox: Well, there’s a very tight relationship between the consumer and the retailer. In the case of crop rejections for example, the retailers have a perception that consumers will not accept anything short of “perfect” produce in terms of color, size, etc. And the consumers are constantly being told that they want this perfect produce at all times. But the reality is that consumers in many cases would be comfortable with less-than-perfect product depending on what they’re going to use it for. So there’s a bit of a disconnect between what consumers are willing to buy and what retailers are selling. It’s a vicious circle that can be turned into a virtuous circle if we had an open and honest dialogue between these two groups. We’ve done some work on this at the Institution and in a survey we found that 80% of the British public were prepared to but what we might call “ugly” fruit and vegetables.
GreenLeaders DC: What can be done from the consumer side?
Tim Fox: This is very important area because consumer behavior also drives a lot of this waste. Something like 30-50% of the food that makes it into the home ends up in the trash bin. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that many consumers don’t consciously plan their food purchases. Their lack of a menu plan for the week, for instance, leads to increased vulnerability to retailer sales promotion and often results in that over-purchasing we spoke about earlier. Making a simple plan would reduce that risk and lead to a more efficient use of the food that they do buy. Another reason is that when consumers get the product home, often it’s stored in less than perfect conditions, it starts to deteriorate, and consumers don’t know what to do with it. And that last point is interesting because it illustrates a lack of culinary skills in many households. Even though that food may no longer be pristine, often times it is still perfectly usable in any number of ways, like making soup for example. So there is a responsibility both on the retail and consumer side to increase awareness on what can be done with the food that is currently going to waste.
Head of Energy and Environment, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London, United Kingdom
Dr. Tim Fox is responsible for developing the Institution’s thinking on energy, environment and sustainability issues. His role also includes communicating this through thought-leadership reports, public speaking engagements, national and international press and broadcast media appearances and by providing input to government policy making both nationally and internationally. He was lead author on the Institution’s recent groundbreaking report “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not” which galvanized world attention on the issue of food waste and food loss across the supply chain from field to stomach. Tim has a wide range of research and engineering practice experience gained in many industrial sectors and has worked for commercial enterprises, government agencies and educational institutions in the UK, Australia, Canada and The Netherlands. He is a Chartered Engineer and Chartered Environmentalist as well as a Fellow of both the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Society of Arts.