Washington, D.C– Food loss and waste globally contribute to poor human and environmental health, but solutions exist to enable value chains to become more sustainable, according to a panel of experts participating in Farm Journal Foundation’s Speaker Series.
Between 20-30% of all food produced worldwide is lost at various stages of the supply chain before it is ever consumed, said Dr. Patrick Webb, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University and director of USAID’s Feed the Future’s Food Systems for Nutrition Innovation Lab. Webb was the keynote speaker at the April 12 Speaker Series event, titled “Food Waste and Loss: Global Perspectives.”
Rates of food loss and waste are similar in both low-income countries and high-income countries, but losses occur at different points along the supply chain, Webb said. In developed countries, such as the U.S. and European countries, waste happens more frequently at the retail or consumer level, when food passes its sell-by date or people leave it to spoil in their refrigerators. In developing countries, losses are more frequent earlier in the supply chain, often stemming from improper storage and post-harvest handling, challenges with transportation infrastructure, and inefficient markets.
“Planetary and human health are really not good, and food loss and waste are important contributors to that,” Webb said. “It’s really outrageous from a natural resource perspective, from a health resource perspective, and from an economic resource perspective. Elements of food loss and waste are happening across the entire food system, not just in one part and not just by one player.”
Losses and waste reduce the overall supply of nutritious, affordable food, creating human health challenges, especially for the world’s poor. At the same time, producing food that never gets consumed creates a strain on resources, hurting environmental health. About 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide relate to food loss and waste, Webb said.
In developed countries, integrated refrigeration systems throughout the supply chain, known as cold chains, mean that very little perishable food is lost during transportation and processing, said Dr. Tim Fox, fellow and chair of the Climate Change Adaptation Working Group at the U.K.-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers. However, these systems create their own environmental challenges, as food is often shipped thousands of miles around the world, and refrigeration requires large amounts of energy.
As these systems transition to low carbon technologies and developing countries build out similar infrastructure, new innovations such as solar-powered cooling systems and vehicles running on electric or sustainable biofuels should be put into more frequent use to help improve sustainability, Fox said.
“About 17% of global electricity supply is used for refrigeration, which is a staggering number and produces huge amounts of greenhouse gasses,” Fox said on the Speaker Series panel. “From a sustainability point of view, many elements of that infrastructure were not designed in a way that had sustainability in mind.”
Reducing food loss and waste is not only important for global food security, it is also critical for combating hunger in the U.S., which has increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Olivia Fuller, a Farm Journal Foundation Farmer Ambassador and regional extension agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension, where she works with farmers in Alabama’s Black Belt region, which has some of the highest poverty rates in the country. From a nutritional standpoint, it is particularly important to make sure farmers have viable markets for horticulture crops, including healthy fruits and vegetables, and to educate consumers that imperfect-looking products are still healthy to eat.
“Consumer education is incredibly important, because the cosmetic criteria that is embedded in what we often perceive as ‘quality’ is somewhat pathetic,” Fuller said. “For instance, if you have a garden, you don’t go out to the garden and expect to pick things that look like what you see in the grocery store. So the more education we can bring to consumers about injured crops or misfits, or things that don’t look exactly how we think they should look, the better.”
In low-income countries, a large portion of food losses occur at the farm level but are caused by macro factors that extend beyond the farm, Dr. Rob Vos, director of the markets, trade, and institutions division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Challenges such as poor infrastructure, low crop prices, and lack of access to working markets can disincentivize farmers from properly handling and storing their crops and protecting crop quality.
“What we’ve found in our research is that it’s not always so much the quantity of food that gets lost, it’s the quality,” Vos said. “Things like product quality certification throughout the supply chain can enormously help to reduce food quality losses. But incentives for this have to be translated into good prices, so that all market agents benefit.”
Farm Journal Foundation’s annual Speaker Series brings together thought leaders from the food and agricultural industry, academia, student groups, and the nonprofit world to discuss issues and challenges facing food and agriculture. The Speaker Series works in partnership with 15 universities and six student organizations, with many university partners including the series in their curriculum. To find out more about future events, visit https://www.farmjournalfoundation.org/events.