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One Third of Food Wasted. Can Retailers Help?

A new report reveals just how much food is wasted even as millions go hungry
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LONDON -- Today is World Environment Day, and to mark it, the U.N. Environment Programme and the World Resources Institute are releasing a paper calling for concerted action to reduce food loss and waste.

UNEP and WRI estimate that one-third of all food produced annually worldwide, worth about $1 trillion, gets either lost or wasted.

Converting this to calories, they say, it means one-quarter of all calories intended for human consumption are never eaten.

To further mark the day, a large U.K. retail chain vows to do something about it. By August, it will send all the waste from its 2,800 food stores nationwide to either produce energy or be recycled rather than going to landfills, radically cutting the stores' operating and transportation costs.

The Co-operative Group will start sending about 34,000 metric tons a year of waste, including food, packaging and customer refuse, to be reused rather than buried.

Nearly two-thirds of the total will be food waste sent for energy production using anaerobic digestion. A further one-fifth will be general and customer waste sent to make fuel, and the rest will be sent for recycling, it said.

"We have a social responsibility to reduce waste that goes to landfill, and we have pledged in our Ethical Plan to divert all our food store waste from landfill by the end of 2013, which we will achieve by the end of July, five months ahead of schedule," said David Roberts, the co-op's director of trading property.

Some other U.K. food retailers are taking similar steps, but none has gone as far as the co-op in recycling.

A cause of hunger and climate change
Food waste is a problem that is not new or unique to the United Kingdom. A report earlier this year from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said 30 percent to 50 percent of the 4 billion metric tons of food produced globally each year, or 1.2 billion to 2 billion metric tons, never reached a human stomach.

It also pointed out that food production is highly energy intensive -- from planting to cultivating, harvesting, processing and transporting. Most of this energy is derived from burning fossil fuels whose emissions harm the climate.

The IME said in its report -- "Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not" -- that the causes of the waste ranged from poor storage and transport facilities to overly rigid sell-by dates, wasteful promotions and a focus on cosmetically perfect products.

It noted that in the United Kingdom, nearly one-third of vegetable crops are left on the ground to rot because they fail to meet the demanding standards of physical appearance set by the big retail chains, and that households in Europe and the United States throw away about half the food they buy.

It also pointed out that with the world's population forecast to rise by about 2 billion over the next 40 years to more than 9 billion, the level of food wastage was unsustainable.

Food for political thoughts
It was a theme seized on this week in a report from a U.K. parliamentary committee that called for a concerted effort to both curb the United Kingdom's food waste and help raise production and conservation overseas.

The all-party House of Commons Select Committee on International Development said biofuels were adding to food price volatility by in some cases using food crops to produce fuel and in others diverting productive land from food production, and the panel called for European Union transportation biofuel targets to be cut.

"There is no room for complacency about food security over the coming decades if U.K. consumers are to enjoy stable supplies and reasonable food prices," said committee Chairman Malcolm Bruce. "There is, for example, considerable scope for the government to launch a national consumer campaign to reduce domestic food waste. The government should also set national targets to curb food waste within the U.K. food production and retail sectors."

Bruce also urged more sustainable meat production "such as pasture-fed cattle rather than highly intensive grain-fed livestock units." According to the IME report, it takes up to 50 time more water to produce 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat than 1 kilogram of vegetables.

The committee called on the U.K. government in its current role as head of the Group of Eight rich nations to raise the issue of biofuels and related matters at a meeting it is hosting Saturday about reducing hunger through nutrition and science, as well as at the G-8 summit June 17-18.

Yesterday, U.S. EPA and the Agriculture Department launched an effort to "lead a fundamental shift in how we think about and manage food and food waste in this country," according to an announcement from USDA. The amount of uneaten food in homes and restaurants in 2008 cost about $390 per U.S. consumer. Americans throw away about 40 percent of their food, said EPA acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe, which turns into methane -- a potent greenhouse gas -- in landfills.

"The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on earth, but too much of this food goes to waste," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Not only could this food be going to folks who need it -- we also have an opportunity to reduce the amount of food that ends up in America's landfills."

The "Food Waste Challenge" has set a goal of 400 partner organizations by 2015 and 1,000 by 2020. USDA will initiate programs to reduce waste in school meals, educate consumers about food storage and invest in technology to cut food waste. The department will also encourage companies to donate misbranded products and test a new meat composting program with USDA meat testing labs.

EPA will provide participants greater access to data and software to help improve food management practices.

Reporter Tiffany Stecker contributed.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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