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Is Food Waste Avoidable in Today’s Society?

Info: 7106 words (28 pages) Dissertation
Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Tagged: SociologyFood and Nutrition

Farm to Fork: is it a wasteful journey?

Is food waste avoidable in today’s society? What impact does it have, and why do we have to reduce it?

An insight into why there is so much food waste and what we can do to prevent it, socially, economically and environmentally.

Starter – What is food waste?

When you think of the term ‘food waste’, you probably think of a pile of food, maybe fruit and vegetables, which may be rotting, because it has just been lying around unused. You may also now think, ‘Yes there is a lot of food waste.’, but what is ‘a lot’?  What really is food waste?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) food waste is the ‘decrease of food in subsequent stages of the food supply chain intended for human consumption.’ Simply put, food waste is where food is lost and discarded due to various reasons.

Food is crucial to everything, and perhaps in the Western / developed world we undermine its importance because there is generally an oversupply, which leads to wastage, and we may not be grateful for what we do have. Food waste not only affects people but it also has social, economic and environmental impacts throughout the industry, sending rippling effects throughout the world on a personal and industrial level.


Figure 1: What may come to mind when you think of ‘Food Waste’

Taz (2006) Market Food Waste. Source: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/sporkist/126526910/ [Accessed 26th June 2017]

In this essay, I explore through three main causes of why there is so much food waste and the resulting social, economic and environmental consequences as well as suggesting some potential solutions to some of these problems. I intend to look at the journey from producer to consumer and everything in between on local, national and global levels. Food waste is everywhere!

Main Course 1: Food waste, farm to fork, food security and equality

Although farm to fork is predominantly about promoting locally produced food into communities, it is more than that. In this essay, I will analyse farm to fork to be the journey of all food, not just local food, from agricultural production to consumption how that journey results in food wastage, which in turn leads to food insecurity.

Food security is ensuring that every individual has access to a supply of food regularly. Being food secure means not having to worry about hunger or living in fear of starvation. The final report of the 1996 World Food Summit states that food security “exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” People in developing countries often are food insecure because they are trapped in a poverty cycle. If they try to get out of it, they could potentially lose everything they have, and with lack of government, or financial support, they are left to struggle. Sometimes it comes down to giant TNCs (Transnational Corporations) who provide jobs to locals; however, if locals ‘speak up’ or try to find other ways to make their voices heard, then the TNCs will simply move elsewhere, resulting in job losses. Ultimately, governments of not only developing countries but also developed countries need to enforce and regulate policies that ensure that people will have access to food regardless of their situation.

4 billion tonnes of food produced per year for consumption, it is surprising that over a third is wasted. I was shocked when I researched this – I knew that a great deal of food was wasted, but to see that figure made it, frankly, incomprehensible. Almost 1 billion people are food insecure, most of them malnourished and starving – yes, 1 billion people! Yet 1.3 billion tonnes edible food waste (out of 1.6 billion tonnes of food waste) is thrown away every year with a value over a $1 trillion, around 1.3% of the USA’s GDP. This is an untenable position in an increasingly populated and under nourished world and we need to find a solution to this seemingly ever-growing problem. Undoubtedly there will be a small amount of waste is inevitable but why do we all waste so much (perfectly edible) food?

As consumers, we generally buy too much food, prepare too much or forget to use it before it goes off. Simply put people are (becoming) lazy; a study in Wales suggested that 43% of 18-24 year olds recycle food compared to 95% over-65s (BBC News, 2017).  In one year, Wales had around 350,000 tonnes of food going to landfill waste. There is also the impact of not knowing how to ‘best utilise’ food and tools. Food travels the world, from the local farmers to international supermarkets; it is key for day for day life and the industry provides millions of jobs all along the way of the supply chain – from farmer, to transportation, to packaging, to supermarkets to consumers.

When put into perspective the following statistics are staggering; each year, in the UK alone, 7.3 million tonnes of food waste ends up in landfills. Yet 8.4 million families struggle to put food on the table (5 million are severely food insecure – meaning that they experience terrible hunger). Globally an estimated 800 million people starve each night, with one in nine being malnourished. What is incomprehensible is that each of them could be fed on less than a ¼ of the food wasted in the USA and Europe alone. The world is producing enough food, so why is there ‘food waste’ when there are people starving? Global hunger and obesity are both clear indications of this huge worldwide problem. In Western countries where there is food surplus and more food waste than in developing countries, there are more obese people. Worldwide, over 1.5 billion people are obese, whilst almost 1 billion people are starving. These are clear symptoms of food inequality in its starkest form.

In terms of food security, the UK is in the bottom half of all EU countries. Countries like Denmark, Sweden, France and Germany are all trying to drastically reduce food waste through various means – be it food waste stores, or new laws. This approach needs to be taken not only in the UK but also worldwide. A good example that is in the UK, is in Leeds where founder and chef Adam Smith has set up The Real Junk Food Project – a series of cafes and grocery stores across the UK, and growing worldwide, that only use wasted food. Customers pay what they can or what they think it is worth, serving as a lifeline for families and individuals who are struggling, (Cadwalladr, 2017) and (Blakemore, 2017). In Leeds, they have a 6000 square foot warehouse where they are intercepting up to 10 tons of food a day. Adam states: ‘I’m sick of the food industry passing their responsibility onto the consumers as though it’s our fault.’, and to an extent, he is right. Supermarkets and retailers are saying that they choose produce because of the customer’s demands, yet it is also the supermarkets responsibility to change people’s minds and show consumers what natural produce is. The UK now has until 2025 to meet the next Courtauld Agreement target of reducing food waste by an ambitious 20%. That can only be achieved if supermarkets, manufacturers and local authorities are united in their efforts putting food sustainability before income.

Primarily through food waste stores and new laws, to ensure that food waste in minimised, there will be more of a supply with the same demand, meaning lower prices, this ultimately means for the consumer it is good as those struggling to purchase food can now buy it, supermarkets will become more transparent, and in the long run see profits go up, and producers do not have to waste time, energy or other resources sorting out ‘natural’ produce or money for storage. This will benefit everyone and reduce food waste whilst increasing food equality and security. Figure 2 shows a model of various factors influencing consumer waste. This shows that as a society we can easily persuaded by brands and ‘reports’ and various other information. However, it is important to recognise all this influence can result in dire consequences for food waste. Supermarkets also need to be clear when labelling produce with terms such as ‘use by’, ‘best before’, ‘sell-by’ and so on, as these all create confusion for the customers often leading people to throw out perfectly good food. Tesco has tried to change their system by removing ‘display until’ labels, resulting in a change that has reduced waste but also been praised by customers (Lipinski, 2013). On the ‘fork’ side, restaurants and other food cafes/buffets can reduce their operating costs, as well as reduce food waste simply by offering smaller sized items on the menu. In developing countries, more on the ‘farm’ side, investment in simple, cheap storage can considerably cut food waste – particularly for small-scale farmers, who often lose food to causes like pests, rot, and transportation damage.

Figure 2: Model of the factors of influence on consumer-related food waste

Amani P. et al. (2015) Model of the factors of influence on consumer-related food waste. Source: www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/7/6/6457/pdf [Accessed 26th June 2017]

Main Course 2: Economics of food waste

Food waste has an adverse economic impact. Food waste thrown away each year is valued at over $1 trillion and this level of wastage has huge consequences for everyone – from local farmers, to CEOs of TNCs and supermarkets. It influences transport costs, production costs and disposal costs. The UK along wasted £13 billion worth of edible food. This means it costs the average UK household £470    on food that could have been eaten.

Food waste is everywhere; but more predominantly in MEDCs (More Economically Developed Countries) – to compare this with those LEDCs (Less Economically Developed Countries), in Europe and North America between 95 – 115 kg per Capita waste compared to Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where the amount of waste thrown away is, in contrast, a mere 6 – 11 kg per Capita waste. Alternatively, all the food waste at consumer level in developed countries (around 222 million tonnes) is almost as much as food produced in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes). However, in both richer and poorer countries there are completely different reasons for the food waste. In mainly Western countries, food waste is largely due to quality of product – its shape and size. There is a huge emphasis on appearance and aesthetics – e.g. a perfect, red round shiny apple. As well as this supermarkets and retailers take advantage of consumers, and through various incentives, encourage customers to, perhaps unknowingly, to buy more food than they need by offering deals to buy more than is needed – for example ‘buy one, get one half price’. A lack of meal planning can also lead to excess purchases. In developing countries on the other hand, food waste arises because of inadequate harvesting techniques and farming practices, with a lack of equipment and infrastructure, inaccessibility to resources, post-harvest management, poor processing and packaging as well as a lack of marketing information and access to global markets or companies.  Farmers often have to succumb to the pressure of the retailers, often-large corporations who pay virtually nothing for the goods. 40% of waste in industrialised countries come from retail and consumer level, whilst 40% of waste in developing countries is through post-harvest and processing techniques.

So what can be done about this?

For developing countries, through local communities and government investment / incentives, they would be able to improve practices, through better technology and infrastructure, diversify and increase productions as well as to increase profiles of the farmers through marketing to buyers providing a direct connection to consumers. In addition, private sectors could invest to improve things like packaging and processing, and making it more efficient in the supply chain – even by providing storage to ensure it is cheaper to store the surplus (than for it to go to waste, which also means poorer consumers can’t afford to pay if it does). For example, grains in Sub-Saharan Africa are lost due to farming techniques and post-management:

Significant volumes of grain in developing countries are lost after harvest, aggravating hunger and resulting in expensive inputs—such as fertilizer, irrigation water, and human labor—being wasted. During postharvest operations, there may be losses of both cereal quantity and quality. Qualitative PHL can lead to a loss in market opportunity and nutritional value; under certain conditions, these may pose a serious health hazard if linked to consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated grain. The causes of loss are many and varied.’ (MISSING FOOD: The Case of Postharvest Grain Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa, Worldbank, 2011)

For developed countries, consumers arguably have power to change how much food they waste – more and more people are willing to buy food whatever its appearance is – as long as it is safe to eat. Conversely, there is a lot more to be done; governments and supermarkets, who will in the long term benefit most economically, need to ‘speak up’ more and use their platforms for change – although it may take a while, it is about changing and opening consumer’s perspective about food waste and try to change their attitude for the better. The government could enforce various laws / political initiatives such as providing free advice, through a variety of forms including workshops and lectures, in the workplace, at schools and universities and even at supermarkets to really change customers’ outlooks on this, often unspoken, but important issue. Whilst there are food banks, and more food waste shops opening, whilst a demonstrable mark to how seriously the issue of food waste is being taken, also shows how far we have to go – we should not be increasing the number of food waste stores in the first place.

Part of farm to fork includes selling local produce directly to customers, and through variety of (government) schemes farm shops and local restaurants could raise awareness in the industry.

There is also the impact of not knowing how to ‘best utilise’ food and tools / equipment with it…

Comparison to European counterparts:

In France, the first country to pass a law on food waste, reduction has been visible and despite not being as effective as they had hoped, they are optimistic that collaborating up with charities and other organisations with supermarkets will allow this law to become more effective as time goes on. In Germany and Denmark, there are new food waste stores SEE LINKS AT THE END.

As part of the food industry, packaging is becoming more prevalent – however M&S are the first supermarket to ditch the packaging, trialling it out on fruit, with the first one being an avocado. This not only will be economically beneficial but also environmentally friendly, meaning it does not rely on any material for packaging.

Avocados labelled by laser 

Figure 3: Food packaging and labelling really has the potential to be reduced

M&S. (2017) Avocados will be labelled by laser. Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/19/avocados-laser-printed-labels-go-sale-ms-bid-cut-paper-waste/ [Accessed 26th June 2017]

In Australia, 44 million tonnes of food waste are thrown away each year – half of what is produced. This is worth about $5 billion / year. Local farmer Ms Davis, says that the potato industry wastes 20-40% of all potatoes produced, which are rejected mainly because of appearances by the supermarkets. Studies also showed that potatoes were constantly the largest contributor to agricultural waste.  Farmers lose a lot of money whether they feed it to livestock or leave it to rot in landfills. Ms Davie s explains:

“We have about a $3 billion agricultural waste in Australia each year and about $1.8 billion of that is horticultural loss. We’re not talking about greening, bruising or mechanical damage or damage due to storage, we’re talking entirely about the way they look. The consumer has been persuaded to only accept fruit and vegetables that look a certain way and this is the result.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Mackay’s Banana Marketing chief executive Richard Clayton who spoke about the 100,000 tonnes of Queensland bananas that are wasted because they do not meet cosmetic retail standards, saying it was only 5 per cent of total production. He says:

‘I think 5 per cent is a standard error for any kind of production. There is food waste, but you’re growing in the wind and the rain so it’s to be expected. It’s up to our skills as growers to get over that and meet the specs — I don’t think the specs are unreasonable.’

This view may be across the board with chief executives and other high people, but this may not be the right approach – to me that is 5% too many.

A good ‘case-study’ to look at is Kenya. A developing country, with strong historic ties [Kenya was a former British colony] to the UK, has had both good and bad impacts for both consumers and producers. Often countries like Kenya, face a difficult problem: to feed their own people, or enhance their economies by growing crops for Western countries like the UK. This was very evident in 2009, where there were huge food shortages in some areas, yet there was an increasing amount of food being sent to UK supermarkets. In 2008, UK imports of goods from Kenya were worth £316m and imports of services were 142m.

Main Course 3: Food waste in the environment

The resources we use to produce food that is wasted has an impact on greenhouse gases and further more on climate change.

If food waste were a country it would be the third biggest emitter of Greenhouse Gases after the USA and China, with an area larger than China to grow food that is never eaten. One may think that getting rid of food won’t contribute (much) to greenhouse gases; yet its carbon footprint is around 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of Greenhouse Gases released into the atmosphere per year. As well as this when food is discarded in landfills, it often decomposes without access to oxygen and creates methane, making its emission 23 times more deadly than CO2. Both of these contribute to climate change, making it one of the most untalked about factors contributing to climate change. As well as this, other parts of the industry such as harvesting, with the use of pesticides, and transportation and energy use all contribute to global warming. In the UK, over its lifetime, 19m tonnes of greenhouse gases has been produced by avoidable food waste – equal to 25% cars off UK roads.

As well as this, more and more land is used for farming, resulting in other effects such as cutting down of trees and making wildlife extinct, as well as the use of water and other resources in the food industry being substantial and ever increasing. Though it is difficult, and usually slightly unreliable, to get an exact value of what the impacts of food waste environmentally, especially biodiversity on a global level. In today’s world, we are using more natural resources for an increasing population and a change in lifestyle.    In some areas, indigenous populations have had to move. Globally over 25% of freshwater is used for food that will never be eaten – the so called blue water footprint is about 250 km³, which is equivalent to 3.6 times consumption of the USA for the same period or 3 times the volume of Lake Geneva. Food made for consumption but later wasted occupies almost 1.4 billion hectares – c. 30% of global agricultural land.

As well as having an environmental impact, energy use is also very costly – from processing and packaging to storage and transportation, which WRAP claims produces the equivalent of at least 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. Often these energy sources are non-renewable and pollute harmful gases. This can cause acidification – ‘caused by direct outlets of acids or by outlets of gases that form acid in contact with air humidity and are deposited to soil and water’ and eutrophication – where chemicals leak from the soil into (stagnant) water bodies and have an adverse biological effect. This has a disastrous effect on both on the natural ecosystems as well as man-made environments.

However, despite all these issues, food waste can be used positively. ‘Food waste should have a high value. We’re treating it as a resource, and we’re making marketable products out of it. Food waste is still carbon – a lot of carbon.’ Although the science behind the process is quite complex, the idea of reducing landfills and our carbon footprint, and instead of extracting oil for energy but instead use anaerobic digestion of food waste to make ‘clean’ electricity is to enhance (green) energy and potentially food security.

As well as recent research from Ohio State University shows that food waste can partially replace the petroleum-based filler in tires that has been used in manufacturing for more than a century. According to the tests, the new filler exceeds industrial standards and has opened up new applications for rubber. The technology has the potential to solve 3 problems – sustainable manufacturing of rubber products, reduces dependence on oil (expensive for countries relying on foreign countries) and keeps more food waste out of landfills. Carbon black (a filler in a typical tire) is becoming finite and unsustainable. The food waste filler, consisting of egg shells and tomatoes as well as other things, use scientific elements of the food to ensure that the filler makes the rubber stronger but retaining flexibility. The only difference to this new rubber would be the colour, a more reddish-brown depending on products used.

Dessert: so is it a wasteful journey?


Figure 4: Recovered Food Waste

Foerster. (2013) A box full of recovered vegetables and fruits dug out of the waste of a hypermarket. Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5b/Recovering_wasted_food.JPG [Accessed 26th June 2017]

Not entirely – food waste is unavoidable only to a very small extent. That small extent is through inedible food waste such as eggshells. In today’s society edible food waste, arguably, needs to be higher on the agenda; cutting these losses is a no-brainer. Without perhaps realising it, it is linked and affects so many problems, from hunger and health to food security, to equality and economic benefits, as well as environmental consequences; it truly needs to be talked about to the extent that the only food waste left is inedible food waste. It affects locals both consumers and producers, large companies and even national economies – without a doubt food waste has a huge impact.  This is why it is important to reduce it. To reduce food waste means, reducing (food) inequality, increasing job security, caring for the environment better and overall, in the long run, an economic gain for everyone.

Unfortunately, despite several sources and reports, food waste is constantly changing and is never accurate in terms of data collection; nevertheless, I would suggest that to cut down the estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of edible food waste and to decrease obesity whilst reducing those who are food insecure would improve global economics and reduce environmental impacts, such as reducing the amount of greenhouse gases and methane produced. By 2050, the global population is expected to reach 9 billion, 1.5 billion more than present day levels. To ensure that everyone is food secure, we may not only have to start producing more food, but more importantly, we have to reduce (present day levels) food losses and waste, drastically. The bottom line is that there is enough food for everyone, and through changes in the market and global perception of food, this can be distributed equally.

Through organisations like WRAP and local farmers, as well as food waste stores, the message is slowly becoming more prevalent and slowly being spread. Whilst the public have slowly been talking about food waste for the last 10 years, more needs to be done. In the UK, I believe the government hold the largest responsibility to try and solve this issue. They need to enforce laws, like in France, where supermarkets cannot throw out food waste without getting heavily fined, as well as educate the public that ‘irregular’ shaped produce is natural, explain terms like ‘best-before date’ and they also have a responsibility to invest in developing countries, like Kenya, where a lot of their produce is made, to ensure that techniques and harvest processing is effective and also enhances the local communities, which in the long run will be an economic reward for both countries. As well as the government, supermarkets need to be more transparent, with not only consumers but also producers, and start supporting local farmers to use ‘irregular’ shaped produce and educating consumers about food and its production. Perhaps on an international level, organisations like the UN, could enforce a new food waste protocol to ensure that there is a global standard for food waste, also making it easier to collect data and monitor food waste.

I truly hope that within the next few years this issue will be at the forefront of global issues, as it ties so many things together – food waste is something to tackle, fast. Inevitably, there will not be zero waste; yet a combination of consumer power, governments and supermarkets, and even those producing the products can all result in an extreme reduction of edible food waste. So next time you think of ‘food waste’, it perhaps is not just a pile of food thrown away, but a whole journey – from farm to fork. Either way, enjoy and value your next meal – bon appétit!


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Food and Nutrition studies deal with the food necessary for health and growth, the different components of food, and interpreting how nutrients and other food substances affect health and wellbeing.

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