By Jonathan Lloyd
Food waste is a tragic misallocation of resources on a global scale, and it is estimated that one third of all food produced is wasted. This mind-boggling statistic represents not only a serious economic cost – as much as $940 billion per year, but tremendous environmental and social costs as well. Considering that 70% of the world’s water use is dedicated to agriculture, this means that a whopping 25% of water use on Earth goes to producing food that is not properly utilized. Food waste is a tragic misallocation of resources on a massive scale.
In addition to lost income for producers and higher prices for consumers, food waste puts further pressure on already scarce resources, including water, energy, and human capital. There are also opportunity costs, as wasted agricultural land, which lead to increased pressure on natural habitats such as rainforests. Producing extra food means producing extra greenhouse gasses, and food waste can also end up in landfill sites where it decomposes to produce methane.
On a per-capita basis, much more food is wasted in the industrialized world than in developing countries. This is because consumers are more prone to discarding food due to plentiful supply, and higher aesthetic standards. The FAO estimate that the per capita food waste by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95 to 115 kg per annum, while the figure in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia is only 6 to 11 kg per annum.
Globally, the majority of food waste occurs during early stages of the food value chain, including production (e.g., input choice), harvesting and storage. In developing countries, losses occur due to poor infrastructure, lack of access to technology, and disconnected supply chains.
Latin America is no exception, it has been estimated that the region loses up to 348,000 tons of food every day, enough to feed some 37% of the world’s hungry. The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) has included Food Loss and Waste Reduction as a major component of its Action Plan for Food and Nutrition Security and the Eradication of Hunger 2025. This is one of the many steps that actors in the region have taken to reduce food waste.
In 2018, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) launched the #SinDesperdicio (‘without waste’) platform to combat food loss and waste within the region. The initiative involves four areas of activity: innovative projects, national and local public policies, knowledge generation, and responsible consumer habits and has some major food companies such as Nestle and Coca Cola on board. According to the IDB, losses occur at all stages of the supply chain – 28% is lost during production; 21% in handling and storage, 6% in processing, 17% in distribution, and 28% by consumers, and the IDB is taking steps to tackle food waste across the supply chain.
As well as investing in technology and infrastructure, some decisions on-farm can impact waste. Producers can ensure that they select crop varieties with a long shelf life, improved drought or salinity tolerance, and that meet buyer specifications. Proper application of agricultural best practices can help reduce waste, along with improved hygiene standards for food processing.
Investment also has a pivotal role to play in reducing food waste. Through strategic efforts, investors can improve the efficiency of transport, storage and market facilities. Food banks can also play a role in ensuring unwanted food finds its way to those who need it. In Argentina, major food company Unilever has been working with Buenos Aires Food Bank since 2004, and has donated 6,500 tons of food in that time, reaching over 110,000 people every day.
Food waste is a serious problem that has far-reaching consequences for the economy, the environment, and society. Solving this problem will require the combined efforts of governments, corporations, banks, growers, consumers, and everyone who participates in the agriculture supply chain. Food waste is one of the most significant challenges faced by the agricultural sector – but, with unification and strategy, it can be overcome.