Ben Cooper

In the spotlight: Report ignites food waste debate

By Ben Cooper | 18 January 2013

A report published last week by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers suggesting that up to 50% of food produced globally is not consumed has attracted significant media attention. Ben Cooper reports.

There is an incontestable logic behind the idea that as humankind seeks to ensure it can produce enough food to feed a population which could reach 9.5bn by 2075, it wastes as little as possible.

However, given the importance now attached to global food security and the amount of time we spend discussing how a sustainable food supply can be guaranteed in the face of population growth and climate change, it would stagger a visitor from another planet to see just how much food we continue to waste.

It is arguably for this reason that a report published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers last week attracted so much attention.

The other primary reason was that the IME's report, entitled 'Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not',which draws on existing prominent research into the issue, concluded that 30% to 50%, or between 1.2 and 2bn tonnes, of all food produced never reaches a human stomach, higher than the figure often cited in discussions around food waste in developed countries of around 30%. There was clearly something impactful about the idea that as much as half the food we are currently producing is not consumed.

Dr Tim Fox, the report's lead author, says the report "ignited the debate across the globe". He adds that he is "highly encouraged" by the degree of public engagement on the issue.

Dr Fox also says he stands by the assertion that the global figure, which includes losses (food lost at the production, post-harvest and processing stages in the supply chain), and food waste (waste occurring once food has reached the retailer or consumer), could be as high as 50%.

"I am convinced that our estimates are robust," he tells just-food, adding that if it were possible to agree a standardised measurement of waste and loss the global figure would fall in the 30% to 50% range.

The fact that there has been so much discussion of the IME's global estimate arguably highlights the lack of such standardisation. Indeed, Dr Fox says there is a need for the international community to come together to agree definitive terms of measurement, as had been done with GHG emissions, which would in turn facilitate monitoring and measurement of progress.

In a sense, the IME's perspective on the issue owes much to the way engineers might view a problem. "We come at it from an engineering perspective," Dr Fox explains. "We're interested in how much energy do we need to deliver, how much are we wasting and how much room is there for efficiency improvement. So if we're going to meet the food demands of an extra 3bn people how much focus should we have on productivity increase and how much focus should we have on delivering more energy, more water, and increased use of land and how much of that focus is really necessary."

While attempting to look at the issue of food waste in its entirety, the report clearly distinguishes between the food waste challenges in the developed and developing world.

It is arguably in the developing world that the practical input of mechanical engineers can most usefully be brought to bear. Indeed, two of the three concluding recommendations in the report pertain to developing countries.

One of the report's key recommendations is that the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) should work with the international engineering community to "ensure governments of developed nations put in place programmes that transfer engineering knowledge, design know-how, and suitable technology to newly developing countries". The IME suggests this "will help improve produce handling in the harvest, and immediate post-harvest stages of food production".

In developed economies, the challenges are more cultural and behavioural. Engineering solutions are of course being applied in food production and distribution in developed economies - and indeed it is the spread of some of those practices and innovations into poorer countries that engineers and other stakeholders are urging - but the pressing issues around food waste in the developed world relate far more directly to what we do with food once it has reached the marketplace.

It is perhaps for this reason that the sharpest criticism of the report came from the British Retail Consortium (BRC). While observing that supermarkets, in attempting to meet high consumer expectations, will often reject "entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables because they do not meet exacting marketing standards for their physical characteristics", the report also linked some of the food waste problem to supermarket promotional activity.

"Of the produce that does appear in the supermarket, commonly used sales promotions frequently encourage customers to purchase excessive quantities which, in the case of perishable foodstuffs, inevitably generates wastage in the home," the report states.

In response, the BRC states: "A Government-sponsored report published last year showed that there was no link between promotions and food waste. The main method of promotions in this area is cutting the price rather than Buy One Get One Free offers, which are rare. Retailers want to help customers make their money go further. They've also adopted a range of approaches to help people make the best use of the food they buy, including giving clear storage advice and recipe ideas, and offering a wider range of portion sizes."

Dr Fox said there is "a broad range of material that suggests some link between promotional offers and consumer behaviour" and stands by those aspects of the report.

The IME's third recommendation urges governments in developed nations to "devise and implement policy that changes consumer expectations". It said these policies "should discourage retailers from wasteful practices that lead to the rejection of food on the basis of cosmetic characteristics, and losses in the home due to excessive purchasing by consumers".

In contrast, the Food and Drink Federation, which represents UK food producers, welcomed the report. Speaking to just-food, FDF director of sustainability Andrew Kuyk concludes it was a "sound report" which had had made "a useful contribution to the debate". While stating that the report would not have told those working in the field of food sustainability anything they did not know already it had been "useful in raising public awareness".

"Raising awareness and stimulating a debate is a valuable thing," Kuyk observes, adding that the report had looked at the issues "from a different perspective" and "will attract a different audience for that reason".

In the context of the global food security debate, looking at the big picture may be no bad thing.

That the challenges in the developing world and in mature economies are inextricably linked is not in doubt. Two abiding themes in the ongoing debate around the food-energy-water nexus is that the problem is a global one and that it requires "joined up" solutions involving collaboration among all stakeholders.

The IME's report arguably represents a concerted contribution to the debate on the part of a key professional group whose members are already actively involved on an individual basis in tackling the issue.

As Andrew Kuyk suggests: "It's a whole chain problem. It requires joined up thinking and it requires the active involvement of a range of players including people who can provide technical solutions."

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Companies: Food and Drink Federation

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