The world loses about $400 billion of food before it even gets delivered to stores, according to the United Nations.
Some 14 percent of all food produced is lost annually, with central and southern Asia, North America and Europe accounting for the biggest shares, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in a report, citing the latest data as of 2016.
Better cold storage and infrastructure would help reduce losses, but more detailed data on the supply chain is needed to tackle the problem, it said.
Food wastage is drawing increased scrutiny because of the contribution to greenhouse-gas emissions and as more than 820 million people are estimated to go hungry each day.
World leaders have pledged to try to halve global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030 and reduce food production losses. Companies are also trying to improve efficiency in the food industry.
“Losing food implies unnecessary pressure on the environment and the natural resources that have been used to produce it in the first place,” Qu Dongyu, director general of the Rome-based FAO, said in the report. “It essentially means that land and water resources have been wasted, pollution created and greenhouse gases emitted to no purpose.”
Consumers also squander huge amounts. As much as 37 percent of animal products and potentially a fifth of fruit and vegetables may be wasted after being purchased, according to the FAO.
Rich nations have higher levels of waste due to limited shelf life or poor consumer planning, while poorer countries typically grapple with climate and infrastructure issues.
Reducing the world’s food losses and waste is a challenge because more information is needed in order to take effective action, the FAO said.
Still, adequate cold storage in particular can be crucial, as well as good infrastructure and trade logistics. Boosting farm productivity through research and development has been found to be more cost-effective than curbing postharvest losses, it said.
Need for ‘solid understanding of the problem’
According to the State of Food and Agriculture 2019, globally around 14 percent of the world’s food is lost after harvesting and before reaching the retail level, including through on-farm activities, storage and transportation.
However, the food losses vary considerably from one region to another within the same commodity groups and supply chain stages.
The report highlighted the need, and offers a new methodology, to measure carefully losses at each stage in the food supply chain. Doing so will help to identify critical loss points across the supply chain.
These are points where food losses have the highest magnitude, the greatest impact on food security, and the largest economic dimensions, as well as to identify the appropriate measures for their reduction.
It also points to the importance of reducing food waste, which occurs at the retail and consumption level and is linked to limited shelf life and consumer behavior, such as demanding food products that meet aesthetic standards, and limited incentive to avoid food waste.
“As we strive to make progress toward reducing food loss and waste, we can only be truly effective if our efforts are informed by a solid understanding of the problem,” Qu said in the foreword to the report.
He questioned, “how we can allow food to be thrown away when more than 820 million people in the world continue to go hungry every day?”
Identifying critical loss points for targeted action
Evidence presented in the report shows a vast range in terms of loss and waste percentages within commodities, supply chain stages and regions, suggesting there is a considerable potential for reduction where percentages are higher.
Losses and waste are generally higher for fruits and vegetables than for cereals and pulses at all stages in the food supply chain, with the exception of on-farm losses and those during transportation in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia.
In lower-income countries, more fresh fruit and vegetable loss is attributed to poor infrastructure than in industrialized countries. In fact, many lower-income countries lose significant amounts of food during storage, often due to poor storage facilities, including refrigerated warehouses.
Despite the fact that in most high-income countries adequate storage facilities, including refrigerated warehouses, are available throughout the supply chain, losses do occur during storage, generally because of a technical breakdown, poor management of temperature, humidity or overstocking.
The report also reveals the results from a number of case studies conducted by FAO for identifying critical loss points.
Results indicate that harvesting is the most frequently identified critical loss point for all types of food. Inadequate storage facilities and poor handling practices were also named among the main causes of on-farm storage losses.
For fruits, roots and tubers, packaging and transportation also appear to be critical.
Such findings are valuable in providing guidance when identifying potential interventions for food loss reduction.
Getting the incentives right
The report urges countries to step up efforts to tackle the root causes of food loss and waste at all stages, and provides guidance on policy and interventions to reduce food loss and waste.
Reducing food loss and waste generally entails costs, and farmers, suppliers and consumers will only take necessary measures if their costs are outweighed by the benefits.
Thus, changing incentives for various stakeholders in the supply chain will involve identifying options that either increase the net benefits or provide better information on the existing net benefits, the report states.
Even when stakeholders are aware of the benefits of reducing food loss and waste, they may face constraints that prevent them from implementing actions.
For example, without financial help private actors in developing countries, especially smallholders, may not be able to bear the high upfront cost associated with implementing such actions. Improving credit access could be an option even in the absence of detailed information on losses.
The report will also help governments to analyze constraints and trade-offs for more efficient interventions. For example, they can raise awareness of the benefits of reducing food loss and waste among suppliers and consumers, and influence their decision-making through various types of actions or policies.
However, the report stresses that the policy measures aimed at reducing food loss and waste should be coherent and involve effective monitoring and evaluation of interventions to assure accountability of existing actions and efforts.
Bloomberg News and FAO/IPS