Tackling waste could resolve sustainability challenges in food industry

Friday, 21 December, 2012

A growing body of evidence suggests tackling food waste could help resolve many of the sustainability challenges faced by the food industry. A number of studies are linking food losses and waste to food inflation, food security, resource inputs and climate change. These issues will be discussed at the 2013 North American Sustainable Foods Summit, which will have the theme ‘Tackling Food Waste’.

The global food industry is currently experiencing its third bout of food inflation in five years because of poor agricultural harvests in the US, Russia and South America. Analysts predict the average basket of food prices will rise by 15% by June 2013. Food shortages and price hikes have previously been responsible for riots in developing countries. As will be shown at the Sustainable Foods Summit, greater efficiency in supply chains can raise food output and help reduce consumer prices.

In a paper at the summit, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) will show how a third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted in the supply chain. Inadequate storage and distribution is the major cause of losses in developing countries, while waste at retail and consumer level is most likely in affluent countries. A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that food wastage in the US amounts to $165 billion. The cost to the average American family is $2275 per year. At the same time, over 15% of the population struggles to find enough food.

Apart from the social and economic implications of food waste, there are environmental impacts. About 54.9 million tonnes of food is wasted in the US, with two-thirds going to landfill. Food waste in landfill is a major contributor to global warming, creating almost a quarter of methane gases. Agriculture also requires resources that are becoming increasingly scarce; uneaten food takes up 25% of the fresh water and 4% of the oil used in the US.

American food manufacturers, retailers and restaurant operators formed The Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) last year, which aims to reduce the amount of food waste going to landfill and increase food donations to hungry people. At the Sustainable Foods Summit, FWRA will state the importance of a collaborative approach to reduce food waste; how the private sector needs to work with the government and NGOs.

Landfill diversion is the focus of most retailers and foodservice operators. A growing number of such enterprises are setting up food recovery programs whereby food is diverted from landfill to hunger relief agencies and/or for use in animal feed, composting or industrial applications. Feeding America operates the largest food recovery program, operating over 200 food banks that serve almost 40 million Americans a year.

Retailers are also becoming aware of the economic benefits; reducing waste means lower hauling costs to landfill. Whole Foods Market, the largest chain of natural food shops in North America, has had over 75% of its stores set up composting programs. Some retailers have gone further by adopting a zero-waste policy.

A major challenge is changing consumer behaviour, especially since about 44% of food waste comes from households. The role of food companies and retailers to encourage responsible consumption will be discussed at the Sustainable Foods Summit. Such methods include educating consumers on how to read food product labels, shop wisely and use food more efficiently.

The third North American edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit will take place in San Francisco on 22-23 January 2013. The summit will bring together leading organisations involved in tackling food losses and waste, while papers will be given by FAO United Nations, Natural Resources Defense Council, Food Waste Reduction Alliance, Whole Foods Market, Bon Appétit Management Company, Feeding America and more.

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