According to a new report on global food production, logistics and consumption published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) in the UK, a combination of too strict expiry dates, agricultural practices, demands for perfect looking fruit and vegetables and special offers which encourage over-buying mean that up to half the world’s food production is being thrown out instead of being eaten.
A United Nations study 'World Population to 2300'
predicts there could be around three billion more people to feed by the end of this century causing increased pressure on the resources required for food production including land, water and energy. The IME
, an august body established in 1847, and counting some of the world’s greatest engineers in its history books, is calling for urgent action to reduce food waste.
In a hard hitting report entitled 'Global Food, Waste Not Want Not'
, the IME highlights that between 30% and 50% of world food production, estimated at between 1.2 and 2 billion tonnes of food, will end up in the trashcan rather than on a plate at a time when an estimated 1 billion of the world’s population don’t even have the safety-net of the minimum recommended daily nutritional requirements.
According to the IME report, this colossal waste of food has a major impact on the environment:
• Land, often rainforest or ancient woodland, is cleared to give way to agricultural production
• Large amounts of energy inputs are required by farm animals in relation to their feedstuffs whilst fertilisers and chemicals are used in fruit, vegetable and cereal production
That food production is at greater levels than is truly required particularly puts additional demands on water resources, according to the IME report:
• About 550 billion cubic metres of water is wasted globally, growing crops that never reach the consumer
• It takes between 20 and 50 times the amount of water to produce 1 kilogram of meat compared with 1 kilogram of vegetables
• Demand for water to produce food could reach between 10 and 13 trillion cubic metres a year by 2050, some 2.5 to 3.5 times greater than current total human use of fresh water today with the potential to lead to more acute water shortages around the planet
Between developing countries and developed nations, the problem of food waste manifests itself differently. In less well developed nations in areas like sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, both the consumer and the producer can hardly be blamed. Inefficient harvesting in those places, inadequate local transportation, poor storage facilities and less than ideal infrastructure all contribute to food produce often going to waste.
Amongst major economies, such as the UK, efficient production, transport and storage mean that a far greater proportion of food produced reaches shops and supermarkets. The problem of wasted food in richer nations relates primarily to modern consumerism. Often this means that vast amounts of food are ditched either by the retailer or by customer behaviour. The report highlights a number of factors contributing to wasted food in rich countries:
• Entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables are often rejected by major supermarkets as they have been deemed to be lacking in their physical characteristics such as size and shape. The IME estimates that up to 30% of vegetable crops in the UK are never harvested
as their appearance is somehow deficient. Such practices are estimated to waste 1.6 million tonnes of food annually
• BOGOF offers in large grocery chains — buy one get one free — encourage shoppers to buy more than they actually need or are likely to consume. This may be fine with canned foods with a very long shelf life but many bogofs are applied to perishable foodstuffs with a knock-on effect on domestic waste. The Global Food report estimates that between 30% and 50% of food bought in developed countries never gets near a dinner table and is simply binned.
Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy and Environment at the IME comments,
“The amount of food wasted and lost around the world is staggering. This is food that could be used to feed the world’s growing population – as well as those in hunger today. It is also an unnecessary waste of the land, water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of this food.
“The reasons for this situation range from poor engineering and agricultural practices, inadequate transport and storage infrastructure through to supermarkets demanding cosmetically perfect foodstuffs and encouraging consumers to overbuy through buy-one-get-one free offers.
“As water, land and energy resources come under increasing pressure from competing human demands, engineers have a crucial role to play in preventing food loss and waste by developing more efficient ways of growing, transporting and storing foods.
“But in order for this to happen Governments, development agencies and organisations like the UN must work together to help change people’s mindsets on waste and discourage wasteful practices by farmers, food producers, supermarkets and consumers.”
Not surprisingly, the ‘Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not’ report sees engineering at the core of the challenges facing humanity and has a series of recommendations including:
1. Education and know-how
: The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation
(FAO) should work with the international engineering community to ensure governments in developed nations put in place programmes to transfer engineering knowledge, design know-how, and suitable technology to developing countries. The aims would be to improve produce handling in the harvest and subsequent crop storage and transport.
2. Emerging economies
: Governments of rapidly developing countries like China and India should incorporate waste minimisation programmes looking particularly at transport infrastructure and storage facilities currently in planning or under construction.
3. Developed economies
: Governments should devise and implement policies that change consumer expectations and discourage retailers from embarking on wasteful practices such as rejecting food due to its cosmetic appearance or encouraging excessive consumer buying.
For the full Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ report, see ‘Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not.’