Food waste: Surplus tomatoes are dumped on farmland in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

Surplus tomatoes are dumped on farmland in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain.
Photograph: Sally A. Morgan/Ecoscene/Corbis
Today I give some thoughts on the Installment 2: Reducing Food Loss and Waste, the second report by the WRI. Up front I have to say it is a very well done, interesting piece, definitely worth taking a close look at. What is especially good about these reports by the WRI is that they are concise, precise, and still contain a lot of information. Now some snapshots and thoughts:
The problem:
  1. “When converted into calories,global food loss and waste amounts to approximately 24 percent of all food produced.”

So this should really slap you in the face. 1/4 of all food produced is lost or wasted.

How does the WRI define food loss and food waste?

Food loss is the unintended result of an agricultural process or technical limitation in storage, infrastructure, packaging, or marketing.”

Food waste is the result of negligence or a conscious decision to throw food away.”

So, I guess, what the report is trying to get at is that food loss is a result of inefficiencies on the producers’ side, while food waste is the due to consumer behavior and demand. For example, consumers prefer nice, good looking apples of the same sizes instead of mishaped ones with brown bits. At least, if they have the choice, then they will only buy those that look nice, while those other, “faulty” ones will not be bought and eventually will be thrown away. Thus, this is food waste. Food loss occurs, for example, because the apples need to be transported from Italy to Germany, and on the way a part of it gets crushed.

However, the distinction between food loss and food waste is not always necessarily clear, since obviously the producers’ and the consumers’ sides interact on the market. So, if German consumers demand apples from Italy and a part gets crushed on the way, then the WRI defines this as food loss. While if German consumers demand local apples then maybe none gets crushed. So is it now negligence (and thus food waste) from the consumers’ side if they buy apples from Italy and a part gets squashed? They could have bought these apples from a German producer instead and thus prevented the squashing of the apples. Or is it food loss and should be attributed to inefficiencies on the producers’ side? What I am suggesting is that the distinction between food loss and food waste needs to be treated carefully, otherwise one closes doors for potential policies that only address the one or the other, for maybe the false reasons.

In terms of regional distribution, the WRI report notes that “[t]he total share of food lost or wasted ranges from 15 percent to 25 percent across most regions (Figure 6). The oneexception is North America and Oceania, where loss and waste is approximately 42 percent of all available food.” In terms of calories per capita per day, North America and Oceania lose or waste twice as much as Europe or Industrialized Asia, and around three times as much as the rest of the world. It would really be interesting to know precisely why food loss is so much higher in North America and Oceania than in the ROW.

The implication:

  1. “Economically, they represent a wasted investment that can reduce farmers’ incomes and
    increase consumers’ expenses.”
  2. “Environmentally, food loss and waste inflict a host of impacts, including unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions and inefficiently used water and land.”
  3. Obviously, a greater food loss or waste will imply that it is more difficult to feed the expected 9.3 billion people in 2050.

Food loss is likely to waste farmers’ income, but food waste not necessarily. The food loss, as discussed below, occurs mostly in LDCs – they are unlikely to have the money to improve efficiency. Thus, it may very well be the case that only rising income in LDCs will have the desired effeect on food loss. Food waste is a consumer side problem, and occurs mostly in rich countries. Thus, if the rich throw food away simply because they can afford to do so, then this increased consumers’ expenses is not really a problem for them. The poor cannot afford to waste food so do this very little. Also, food waste is not necessarily a problem for the poor and may even raise farmers’ incomes! Farm revenues are (price x quantity), and if the increase in quantity that goes to food waste is sufficiently larger than a (possible) price reduction due to the additional amount produced, then this raises farmers’ income. Furthermore, if demand increases further with a given quantity produced, then this may even raise prices and thus lead to an increase in farms’ income. Thus, food loss is a problem for farming incomes, but food waste largely a problem only for creating a sustainable food future.

A discussion of some of the solutions suggested:

  1. food redistribution –> “This strategy applies at the production stage with crops that otherwise would go unharvested, at the manufacturing stage with overproduced products, and at the distribution and market stage with food left unsold at stores and markets.”
  2. Food date labelling –> The “use-by” labelling is the “the last date recommended for the use of the product from a food safety perspective.” One suggestion here could be to adopt the “minimally-conservable until” labelling that is used in Germany. It is a less restrictive labelling in the sense that “use-by” is a hard constraint that basically says: Use latest until expiry date, because on the expiry date the food will not be edible anymore. In contrast, the “minimally-conservable until” label suggests: Ok, you should start thinking about eating this sooner rather than later. It provides a less rigid constraint on the date of consumption.
  3. Reduce portion sizes (in restaurants) –> this is unlikely to happen. Think about it – take two identical restaurants, one with a small portion and the other with a big one – which one would you go to? Another issue here is culture: In many Asian countries it is rude to leave an empty plate behind, as then this means that the person who invited could not feed everyone sufficiently. Changing this attitude in restaurants from the consumer side and the restaurant owner side will be extremely difficult.

Some more random points: Quite interestingly, food waste seems to be positively correlated with income (see Figure 6 in report), while food loss is negatively correlated with it. Thus, food loss is likely to be a problem of storage costs, transportation problems, inefficiencies in the production-to-consumption chain. Clearly, assuming the causality runs from income via technology/management/infrastructure to food loss, then improvements in income for the LDCs should yield a double divident: poverty reduction and reductions in food loss. In contrast, since food waste seems positively correlated with income (which should be clear: if you have little money to buy food, then you are going to be much more careful with it), then simple increases in income are likely to only lead to a re-distribution of the problem – from food loss to food waste. Thus, both for developed countries and for LDCs that are growing quickly, a strong focus should be placed on the consumer side.

Just a note: I find the focus on gender in the WRI report a little too restrictive. Why not child poverty and child health? Why not social security? Why really gender? In my own opinion, gender problems tend not to be overcome by simply increasing wealth. For example, “Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States, more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. (“Violence Against Women, A Majority Staff Report,” Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 102nd Congress, October 1992, p.3.)” See also a WHO report here. I would suggest to focus more closely on poverty and not be “distracted” by gender issues. Also, because the two points raised in the report,

  1. “Reducing food losses increases the return on investment of time spent farming and could reduce the total time needed to work in fields”
  2. “Reducing food waste could reduce total household expenditures on food, freeing up resources for health, education, and other household benefits”,

are really not gender oriented but instead are household oriented or poverty alleviation.

How about economic incentives?

  1. Tax the amount of food loss. This should increase efficiency at the production/transportation/marketing stage. An obvious problem is that this will be less effective in poor countries where producers simply cannot afford the expensive technologies or management options. 
  2. Ask for significantly higher insurance rates for overweighted people. Just like it is the case for someone undertaking a dangerous sport, smokes or has a family history of specific diseases, the insurance industry could also raise insurance costs for overweighted. I think all this discussion about fairness is surprising. Obviously, there are some diseases or medication that lead to overweight. In these cases, insurance rates could be adjusted accordingly.
  3. Consumer attitudes: could be changed via implementing a sort of sport-oriented society, like it is the case in many European countries now. Sports, physical fitness starts to be a trendy thing. Overweightness less so. Relaxed living, taking time to dine out, reduces both stress and junk/fast food intake.
  4. giving incentives to the old local small stores: if you only need a minute to walk to your next bakery or local shop, then one will buy more on a need-for basis and not this bulk shopping. Less things will be pushed to the back of the refrigerator where it is only found because it already starts to walk by itself…..