The journey from harvest to table: Cutting out food waste
The journey from farm to table is characterised by loss and waste – from overproduction to accidental damage and unmet quality standards – these are just some of the "opportunities" for waste that are encountered amid the farm-to-table process. In fact, almost 40% of the food in the United States is wasted.
Not only does food waste cause greenhouse gas emissions and environmental damage, but it also exacerbates food insecurity in many communities. Like a vicious cycle, food waste accounts for 10% of total global emissions, yet, at the same time, the climate crisis is one of the main factors exacerbating food insecurity.
Since methane, a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over twenty years, is released into the atmosphere when food ends up in landfills, it’s safe to say that minimising food loss across the supply chain should be treated as a priority, not as an option.
Food waste across the supply chain
Besides the release of greenhouse gasses, when food goes to waste, so do all the resources that were utilised for its production, processing, transportation, preparation, and storage. Food waste in the United States, for example, results in the loss of water and energy equivalent to building more than 50 million homes.
Consequently, it’s important to not only acknowledge the environmental effects of food waste but also to assess where food is specifically wasted and lost in the supply chain.
For starters, while discussions about food waste usually refer to the household and retail sections, more than 15% of food is dissipated before leaving the farm. As an example, due to price volatility, farmers may not end up moving products into the market since the food prices may be lower than the costs of processing and shipping. From damaged crops due to environmental and biological factors to products that do not meet cosmetic market standards, these are a few of the reasons that lead to food loss and waste during the production stage.
Then, in the handling and storage stage, food waste and loss can occur due to numerous different factors, but it mainly boils down to improper handling and storage. In the case of vegetables, loss predominantly happens because of spillage and degradation during loading and unloading and improper transportation and storage. Then, when it comes to meat products, loss often occurs due to condemnation in the slaughterhouse while, for fish, spillage takes place during the icing, storing, and packing processes. Despite high-income countries having adequate storage facilities in the supply chain, food loss still happens during the storage stage due to technical malfunctions, overstocking, or inadequate temperature.
While some inevitable losses happen during the processing and packaging stage such as the loss of milk during the processing of yoghurt, most of the losses in this stage of the supply chain occur due to technical problems. Similarly, packaging materials can contribute to food loss if they are not designed to preserve the freshness of the products.
Subsequently, in the transportation and distribution stage, food is lost, as the name implies, amid its transportation. In developing countries, for example, products may not meet cosmetic standards since they acquire bumps and bruises along the journey. Then, if food is delivered after its prime freshness window, it gets rejected in most cases. In Japan, for example, “the rule of one-third” entails that food and beverages must be delivered within one-third of their shelf life.
Finally, in the consumption stage, food is either wasted or lost in households or other food service establishments. In truth, the largest amount of food waste occurs in households, with 76 billion pounds of food being wasted annually per person in the United States. Moreover, the food wasted at this stage also has the largest resource footprint in the supply chain because of the resources utilised for its transportation, storage, and cooking.
A sustainable food value chain
While acknowledging the effects of food waste as well as its causes is crucial, in order to move forward, innovation is necessary. In fact, according to ReFED's 2030 roadmap, the United States could reduce food waste by 45mn tonnes a year, cut GHG emissions by 75 million metric tons, and save food equivalent to four billion meals for those in need with the right policy changes and investments.
Since food waste has both societal and environmental effects, a sustainable food value chain should produce and distribute food in a way that is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. Essentially, this means that the food chain should function in such a way that it has minimal impact on the environment while ensuring that people have access to nutritious food and supporting the livelihoods of farmers and other food system employees.
A sustainable food value chain presupposes that all resources are used efficiently and sustainably and that waste is minimised. For instance, the food that is wasted during the production stage could be used to produce biogas or fertiliser through anaerobic digestion. Similarly, the ‘ugly’ food that doesn’t meet cosmetic standards could be kept out of landfills by being upcycled. That being said, for this transition to be resilient and sustainable, change needs to happen across the entire food chain.
For instance, in the production stage, food loss could be minimised through precision agriculture and improved agricultural practices such as crop rotation. However, precision agriculture technology will only work with education regarding sustainable agricultural practices and technologies. Alternatively, ‘waste’ can be repurposed by identifying alternative markets that might be interested in ‘imperfect’ products. Similarly, since the vegetables and fruits that do not meet cosmetic standards are still nutritious, they could be donated to food-insecure communities.
On the other side of the food chain, awareness is key to reducing food waste at the consumption stage. The problem of food waste boils down, especially in developed countries, to cultural expectations and preconceptions regarding food and its transition to ‘waste’. From shopping locally and more responsibly to using leftovers and composting food scraps, these are just a few examples of how food waste can be reduced at the household level.
Food waste minimisation: a necessity
From consumers composting food scraps and restaurants collaborating with food banks to edible by-products being developed into ingredients and local food distribution being promoted, a sustainable food value chain is achievable through collaboration.
However, food waste and loss need to be halved per person for the 2030 SDGs to be met, hence these tweaks in the food supply chain need to be treated as priorities instead of options. Since the effects of food waste are visible not only from an environmental perspective but also from an economic and societal one, an equitable and sustainable food system should result in improved food security and economic savings in addition to lowering greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing biodiversity.