Industry, Culture Drive Global Food Waste, Engineers Say

by | Jan 10, 2013

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The world wastes up to 2 billion metric tons of food each year, driven by supermarket industry practices, inefficient harvesting and agriculture methods, poor storage and processing facilities and Western culture’s penchant for perfect looking fruits and vegetables, according to report by the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Waste Not Want Not – Global Food Waste: Feeding the 9 Billion” describes how up to half of the four billion metric tons of food produced each year never makes it to the plate. As a result, large amount of land, water, energy and fertilizers are wasted as well, the report said (see graphic on water use).

The report warns that the world’s ability to meet its dietary needs will be tested as the global population hits a peak of 9.5 billion people – three billion more than today – by 2075.

Food waste in developed countries primarily occurs because of retail and customer behavior. Major supermarkets will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards for their physical characteristics, such as size and appearance, the report said. This practice means up to 30 percent of the UK’s vegetable crop is never harvested. Globally, retailers generate 1.6 million metric tons of food waste annually in this way.

Supermarkets create further waste through sales promotions that encourage consumers to buy excessive amounts of food. Overall, betweem 30 percent and 50 percent of what has been bought in developed countries in thrown away by the buyer.

In less developed countries, such as in sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia, waste tends to occur primarily at the farmer-producer end of the supply chain, the report said. Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure results in produce that is mishandled or stored in unsuitable farm site conditions.

As the development of a country increases, the food loss problem moves further up the supply chain with deficiencies in regional and national infrastructure making the largest impact. For instance, losses of rice in Southeast Asia can range from 37 percent to 80 percent of total production depending on the development stage of the country. Total waste in the region amount to about 180 million metric tons a year.

In November, the EPA launched its Food Recovery Challenge by signing up grocery stores, universities, entertainment venues, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, convention centers and federal facilities to a five percent cut in food waste in their first year. Amgen, the Boston Red Sox, Canon USA, the Cleveland Indians, the Grand Hyatt New York, MGM Resorts, the National Hockey League, the St. Louis Cardinals, Supervalu, Wegmans and Whole Foods’ northeast and south regions were some of the 130 organizations that signed on to the program.

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