It is a sobering fact of modern life that while in some countries food is scarce, others collectively waste food with a total value of about US$1 trillion (€ 735 billion). There is a clear opportunity to redress the balance. The benefits of food waste prevention programmes are more than just environmental; success stories from one country can be the basis of initiatives in another.
Our food is on a journey. Where it comes from and what happens to it have significant implications for climate change. WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) helps deliver UK government policy on waste and resources and plays a major role in global food security. We work with businesses to reduce food waste, and help consumers make the most of the food they buy so that less is wasted. We work with local authorities and resource management companies on implementation of suitable food waste collection and processing systems, so that the economy benefits from the renewable energy, heat and compost that results. Since 2005, WRAP has worked with the UK food and drink industry to tackle the growing problem of food losses and waste. Our international work led the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to conclude that about one-third by weight of all food grown for human consumption is lost or wasted. If converted into calories, this represents a global loss and waste of food amounting to about 24 per cent of all food produced. This means that one out of every four food calories (1.3 billion tonnes’ worth of food) intended for consumption by people is never eaten. Wasting food fit for human consumption is a major global issue because food is a critical natural resource. Money, land, energy, carbon, fuel and water go into food production.
Food waste creates a distortion in global food availability and exacerbates rising food prices and price volatility.
It has a negative effect on food security and puts unnecessary pressure on agriculture and the environment to produce more food than is needed. The world’s population is forecast to grow to 9 billion people by 2050; and a rapidly growing and urbanised middle class, with aspirations for a more ‘westernised’ or varied diet, in major emerging economies such as China, India and Brazil is putting more pressure on the global food system. So it is essential we become more efficient in the way our food systems are managed.
Climate change alters the conditions in which crops are grown, as a result of factors such as changing precipitation patterns and increased fresh water scarcity, the degradation or loss of agricultural land and our ability to grow crops. This can lead to major regional challenges, as people are displaced if the crops on which they depend can no longer be grown. In addition, throughout the food chain, food waste generates greenhouse gas emissions as it decomposes in landfill, or through the wasted resources used in its production and journey from farm to fork. Preventing food waste can therefore reduce the need for resource consumption that leads to climate change, and help improve future food security and availability, reducing displacement effects and leading to a more stable supply of food.
ACHIEVING A SUSTAINABLE FOOD FUTURE
Studies into food waste from around the world show that roots and tubers, fruit and vegetables, and cereals comprise the biggest wasted food groups by volume. However, although waste from meat is smaller in volume, it has a higher environmental impact because of the high greenhouse gas emissions associated with some livestock and the production of animal feed, land use and water consumption per calorie, as well as a higher economic cost of this waste. In 2009, the amount of food loss and waste was responsible for 3,300-5,600 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e). Food loss and waste is responsible for about 173 billion cubic metres of water consumption per year. An area about the size of Mexico (nearly 200 million hectares) is used to grow this wasted food, and 28 million tonnes of fertiliser are used to produce it. Reducing waste and process inefficiency can deliver big savings.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) have identified the reduction of food loss as one of the leading global strategies for securing our food future.
Closing the gap between food available today and the food needed to feed 2050’s projected 9 billion will have many benefits, and from a climate change perspective will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, land use, land use change and landfill. Diverting waste food from landfill and improving food utilisation reduces the need to use more energy, land, fertilisers and other agricultural inputs; and reduces the stress on our already over-exploited fisheries and the need to raise more livestock. UNEP and the WRI also pointed out that strategies for reduction are only successful if they are applied in all parts of the food supply chain, from production, handling and storage, processing and packaging, distribution, to consumption. WRAP has significant experience in working across the food supply chain to reduce waste and improve resource efficiency and the sustainability of food products and is working with stakeholders to build a more sustainable food system.
WRAP AND FOOD WASTE
WRAP published the The Food We Waste in the UK in 2007. This ground-breaking report revealed the nature and scale of the food waste problem in the UK, where it is coming from and why it is happening. It showed that most food waste is generated in the home, and consumer food waste is mostly avoidable (i.e. that most of the food waste in UK households could have been avoided through better management). This evidence base is continuously being built and updated. The purpose of the research was to understand more about consumer behaviours, attitudes and knowledge around food. In 2007 WRAP developed a consumer-focused campaign, Love Food Hate Waste (LFHW) (www.lovefoodhatewaste.com). In the first mapping exercise, the researchers identified the complex and inter-related food attitudes and behaviours that lead to food waste.
The research also uncovered a startling fact: that most consumers were throwing away perfectly edible food without really thinking about it.
It was an unconscious behaviour. With this understanding, consumers’ awareness of food waste could be raised, resulting in changes in behaviour. We worked with the food industry to change the way products were offered to consumers, and improve and clarify the date labelling, food storage and preparation advice. Behaviour began to change as consumers were alerted to the money they could be saving by avoiding this waste – about £50 (€ 60, US$80) per month per family. LFHW gives consumers practical advice and skills to make the most of their food and reduce waste, through better planning, understanding date labels, using up leftovers and storing food correctly. As a result of the campaign and our work with the food industry, food waste has reduced from 8.3 million tonnes per year to 7.2 million tonnes, a saving of € 3 billion (US$4 billion) worth of food. LFHW not only forms part of a bigger WRAP food waste programme, but much of its consumer engagement is delivered through partners. We have partnered with all major UK supermarket chains, food manufacturers, local authorities and community groups, who help ensure the messages and advice given to consumers are consistent. Through this approach we have developed a good track record of success in the UK, but there is much more to do both in the UK and elsewhere. We now work alongside businesses and governments in other countries to support their efforts globally to reduce food waste, for both economic and environmental reasons. Strong links are being forged on the international stage: WRAP’s campaigns in the food sector have involved working closely with UNEP and the FAO. Now, these models are being made transferable. The work on food waste and food security has helped support broader food policy in the UK, and provides the basis for action at European and international level – governments and research institutes from the USA, China, Australia and Brazil have all sought our advice on reducing food waste.
ENGAGEMENT FROM INDUSTRY
WRAP’s collaboration with the food industry has helped tackle food losses and waste in a coordinated way and put it on the corporate agenda. In 2005, we launched the Courtauld Commitment, a voluntary agreement with the grocery industry to reduce waste and improve resource efficiency. The industry was persuaded that it was worth investigating food waste and collaborating on it. Eight years on, we are now delivering the third phase of the Commitment in partnership with 50 major retailers and brands (including Nestlé, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Unilever) signed up to a voluntary agreement to reduce household food waste by a further 5 per cent and supply chain waste by 3 per cent between 2013 and 2015. The Courtauld Commitment is a blueprint that could be developed across Europe and beyond. We are currently working with UNEP and FAO to develop and share this more widely and will pilot it from 2014. Over the next few years, other countries and businesses will be able to see how the Courtauld Commitment signatories’ approach to waste reduction has improved their bottom line and helped them to make their supply chains more resilient and fit for the challenges of the future.
THINK.EAT.SAVE. - A GLOBAL FOCUS
WRAP works as a partner with UNEP and the FAO on the Think.Eat.Save.campaign, launched in January 2013.
This aims to accelerate action and provide a forum for sharing ideas, advice and information (www.thinkeatsave.org) for all the initiatives worldwide, to create a global culture of sustainable food consumption. The Think.Eat.Save. campaign urges consumers, the food industry, retailers, the hospitality industry and governments to examine their own roles in reducing the 1.3 billion tonnes of food lost or wasted each year. It supports FAO’s SAVE FOOD initiative (www.fao.org/save-food) to reduce food waste and loss along the entire chain of food production and consumption, run by the UN Secretary General’s Zero Hunger initiative (www.un.org/en/zerohunger). WRAP’s role in the Think.Eat.Save. campaign involves using our research and expertise alongside UNEP and FAO to provide restaurants, retailers, and consumers with simple, practical ways to reduce food waste, reduce their environmental impact and save money. Restaurants can offer alternative portion sizes to their customers or optimise the number of menu choices. Retailers can carry out waste audits and product loss analysis, while redesigning product displays, standardising and clarifying date labelling, and advising consumers on food management and home economics.
Consumers can learn how to store, prepare and cook food more efficiently, donate food and better understand expiry dates.
ACTION FROM WORDS AND THEORY
These initiatives represent the first steps in understanding and tackling food waste. Encouraging progress is being made; however, there is still a very long way to go in reducing food waste along the entire food supply chain. I have spoken about this issue at major international conferences and events for a number of years and remain passionate about sharing our experience and expertise of tackling food waste. But now the time for talking is over. We must start putting our words and theory into action if we are to avert the onset of dangerous climate change and the ongoing food security crisis. We look forward to playing our part and hope that wherever and whoever you are, you can do so too.
This article was originally published on Climate Action 2013-2014 (www.climateactionprogramme.org)
Dr Liz Goodwin is CEO of WRAP. She trained as a chemist and has a Ph.D in chemical physics. She held technical and production roles with ICI and Zeneca before moving into the environmental field. Liz has worked for WRAP since its early days and became CEO in 2007.
WRAP (the Waste & Resources Action Programme) helps deliver UK government policy on waste and resources and plays a major role in global food security. It is an independent, not-for-profit company, recognised in the UK and internationally for expertise in resource efficiency and product sustainability, leading-edge evidence, skills, knowledge and ability to bring people together to solve problems.