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Our World View: Addressing the issue of wasted food

Posted 18 November 2013

Luís de Aguiar

A monthly comment from a member of staff at Harper Adams University

Luís Kluwe de Aguiar Senior Lecturer, Food Science and Agri-food Supply Chain Management

HRH The Prince of Wales’ views in the recent Country Life magazine, of which he guest edited, are of great importance because he highlights the paradox between issues regarding how food is produced and wasted. 

In a world where perhaps half of the population can go through some period of starvation, the other half in the words of Raj Patel is ‘stuffed’. Food is wasted along the supply chain from the sites of production to the sites of consumption. The figures mentioned by HRH are staggering regarding the volumes of fertilizers, fossil fuel, precious water and labour used for the production of food that simply goes to waste.

Sustainability is addressed differently depending on the stage of the food supply chain, and can be understood as having three main segments. On the one hand, farmers in general have struggled to move away from a high-input/high-output paradigm, hence not being quick enough to adapt to more sustainable practices. This could be with the help of technology such as precision agriculture which maximises the use of agricultural inputs, or as mentioned by the HRH via the return of the use of more traditional techniques.

Sometimes, not only have consumers distanced themselves from where food is produced, but farmers have distanced themselves from the natural cycles, thus failing to ‘listen to the earth’. Food production at farm level needs to be rethought as it cannot operate such as a factory.

The middle segment, consisting of food manufacturers, has recognised early enough the opportunities of being more sustainable. Holtum (2001) states that ultimately, corporations which have been willing to help consumers towards a more sustainable consumption, did not do so for any great altruistic reason. Food manufacturers have realised that being more sustainable would also render benefits through practices which ultimately allow them to reduce the cost of production.

In the third segment, consumers, despite putting pressure on both farmers and food manufacturers by expressing their concern regarding unsustainable food production practices, have not acted as expected. It is recognised that the largest impact of consumption is not during the production or processing stages, but during and after the use of foodstuff at house-hold level.

Beamon (2008) introduced the notion that food manufacturers managing supply chains, which had until recently operated under relatively inexpensive energy and raw materials, have been alerted to the fact that consumers were not doing their share. As a result, food manufacturers have been concerned about how they would be perceived by consumers associations and other activist groups, and have taken the responsibility for the reduction of much of the volume of post-consumption materials which would end up in landfill. This, according to Hultom (2011), is not done altruistically, but by a calculated need to expand a mature consumers’ market by encouraging consumers to reduce their own emissions whilst not stopping consumption.

Tesco has recently announced that some 30,000 tonnes of fresh produce is wasted. In a land where families struggle to make ends meet and food banks are proliferating, this news is shocking. Some have argued that much of the present emphasis on sustainability assessment is based on product life-cycle. Nonetheless, in the quest to determine a sustained sustainability, the lifecycle of products beyond their traditional end-of-life ought to be considered.

Food is essential to all humans. Will there be enough food for the nine billion inhabitants of this planet? In the light of such a wasteful sector, there are still huge gains to be achieved. However, something is definitely not right and I agree with HRH, something does need to be done.

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