As food companies continue to develop their sustainability strategies and improve performance across a range of environmental and social criteria, issues such as water efficiency, carbon emissions, the use of renewable energy, climate-friendly packaging and sustainable agriculture will all be much discussed during the coming 12 months. However, for the food industry this may be a year when one particular subject eclipses all others, and that issue is food waste. Ben Cooper reports. 

There are a number of reasons for this why food waste is moving up the sustainability agenda. To a degree, the signs were there in 2012. During the year, the issue was increasingly discussed and prioritised both collectively and individually by food companies and retailers. The public attention a report into food waste by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers attracted this month underlines the depth of feeling this issue engenders and is likely to continue to evoke as the year progresses.

The estimate in the IME report that up to 50% of the food produced in the world might be lost or wasted – higher than some estimates to date – may have in part been responsible for turning so many heads but it was possibly the overall premise of the report which was just as significant.

What the IME report does is place the food waste issue firmly in the context of global food security. With the global population set to swell to 9bn by 2050, food security is now commonly discussed in the context of other key environmental issues in what has become known as the food-energy-water nexus.

Particularly in view of the strain on water resources in many parts of the world which feeding the growing population will create, such holistic thinking is vital. However, this places a primary emphasis on making agriculture more efficient and boosting production to meet demand. There has arguably less focus – certainly at the global level – on maximising what we already produce, notwithstanding the creation of the Save Food initiative by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Messe Düsseldorf GmbH in 2011.

Research was carried out for the FAO between 2010 and 2011 by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology (SIK) and published at the inaugural Save Food congress in May 2011. The principal finding of the SIK study was that roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, amounting to around 1.3bn tons per year. That figure may have been in circulation for a couple of years but is perhaps only now gaining widespread public awareness.

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Indeed, the SIK research was referenced by the IME report. The authors of the IME report looked at the question of food security as engineers, examining how to gain maximum benefit from the energy already being expended before seeking to increase capacity. It is this facet of the food waste problem which arguably makes it a key sustainability issue, with relevance to every other area. Not only is the food wasted but all the water, energy and human effort which has gone into its production.

The question the report poses, at a very basic level, is if we are throwing away between 30% and 50% of the food we currently produce, do we actually need to ask the planet to yield any more to feed those additional 2bn to 3bn mouths?

It may be a rather simplistic way of looking at it but, as the public and media response to the IME report appears to bear out, it is that kind of thinking that may resonate most with the public. As public awareness of global food security grows, one would logically expect the idea of food waste in mature economies or food loss in the developing world to become increasingly unconscionable.

This will have a number of effects. Inaction or complacency on the part of governments, food companies or the food industry as a sector will be less tolerated. But, at the same time, efforts to reduce food waste will have more traction with consumers.

Readiness to engage comes at a time when there are projects to engage with. Companies and national industry associations are increasingly mobilising on the issue. A major industry effort is underway in the US in the form of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA), while the reduction of food waste is a key element in the recently published Australian Food and Grocery Council’s Sustainability Commitment.

Action is also being taken internationally, with the launch only this month of the Think.Eat.Save. campaign by UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) with other partners. The new campaign targets food wasted by consumers, retailers and the hospitality industry and could prove a catalyst for corporate and public action.

With Save Food’s research – regarding food wasted at the end of supply chains in mature markets and lost before it reaches the supply chain in developing countries – gaining increasing public attention and increasing activity at a national and international level, food waste is likely to remain in the spotlight during 2013.

Only time will tell whether we have reached a tipping-point on the issue regarding public consciousness, but there is a further factor which points to 2013 being something of a breakthrough year on the issue. Food waste not only has relevance to the other key environmental criteria such as water stewardship and greenhouse gas emissions but, not least in the eyes of the consumer, speaks to the issue of economic sustainability.

After more than four years of recession and with so many countries still in economic turmoil,minimising waste should be an easy sell to consumers who have learned and, judging by the number of becalmed economies, have resolved to retain rather frugal habits. Moreover, given that food price inflation appears to be the only economic indicator on the rise, profligacy with food would surely be even more anathema. The fact that major beneficiaries of some of the initiatives around food waste reduction are the growing numbers of food banks in developed economies tells its own story.

In a sense, it is quite remarkable how unconcerned modern consumers have become about how much food they throw away or how wasteful the food supply chains that serve them have become.Contrasts are often made with the approach to saving food in Britain during the Second World War. If even a semblance of that mindset were to be invoked by concerns over the economically and environmentally unsustainable levels of food waste the world currently tolerates, the progress would be staggering.

Will your company be increasing its investment in sustainability this year? Fill in the just-food Confidence Survey to have your say. Respondents will be entered into a draw to win a subscription to and the results will be presented in a webinar next month. Click here for the 2013 Confidence Survey.