I recently read one of the most simple, and powerful, statements about the food system:
“There isn’t any waste in nature. Anything that dies in nature becomes food for something else…Humans have created waste as a concept, and we should be able to uncreate waste as a concept.” Pg 198 The Fate of Food.
How we think about food loss and food waste shapes how we fix the issue. Food loss is food lost during production or harvest – for example, a recent report by the Central Otago District Council estimated that fruit loss in the region was around 8.6% of the total crop. That proportion of fruit is not harvested or is ‘lost’ on the property or in production. This proportion of food lost is considerably smaller than in developing nations where, the Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimate, 30-40% of food is lost before reaching the consumers. The costs of infrastructure, transportation and refrigeration, impacting on the ability to get food to consumers.
Conversely, food waste is food that has made it to the retail, restaurant or consumer and is not used (for whatever reason). Wasting food at the consumer end of the supply chain is an area where developed nations excel. For example, the FAO estimate that the per capita amount of food wasted by consumers in Europe and North America is 95-115 kg / year – compare that with the figure of 6-11 kg / year in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia.
So, how are we wasting food? One of the biggest areas of waste is fruit and vegetables. In NZ it is estimated that around two-thirds of food wasted is fruit and veg; this is followed by bread (around ¼ of all food wasted). The reasons? Apparently we buy too much, don’t plan meals, don’t use left-overs and don’t eat things before their expiration date.
Best before dates on fruit and vegetables have been an area of focus elsewhere – with a move to remove them for products in UK supermarkets. Waitrose removed ‘best before’ dates in a bid to reduce the amount of food going to landfill. According to one UK not-for-profit, around 70% of the food thrown away in the UK could have been eaten. That’s a considerable amount when you consider that the UK wastes 6.6 million tonnes of food each year.
As consumers what can we do? One of the biggest ways that food is lost at the supermarket or retailer is due to it not meeting aesthetic or look requirements. It is time that we embraced the ugly – to do so we need to understand what has caused a fruit to be discoloured, marked or misshapen. This takes a bit of fruity know-how – blemishes and odd shapes are unlikely to alter your taste experience; but bruising or over-ripeness might. All is not lost with the over-ripe fruit though as this often means the sugars are well-developed (let’s face it, the best banana cake is made with the squishiest bananas; or the best tomato sauce made with the ripest tomatoes).
There is a lot going on in the food waste space – clever start-ups are reimagining what could be done with excess and unwanted fruit and vegetables. Producers are working hard on production methods to reduce crop loss and to ensure that what they spend 12 months producing reaches consumers. The final thought, however, is that as consumers we need to get a little less fussy – demanding fruit all to be of a maximum size and colour has implications (it means that the smaller, low value ones, are not worth processing, for example), the implications of our choices or of what we ‘reject’ at the supermarket has a cost. One of the largest of these ‘costs’, is the release of methane from food dumped in landfills – if food waste was a country it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Food for thought.