Resource Use

New report highlights food waste

A report released today (10 January) by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has found that between 30 and 50 per cent of all food produced around the world is never consumed by humans.

‘Waste Not, Want Not’ blames the waste on issues as diverse as inadequate infrastructure and storage facilities, overly strict sell-by dates, supermarket offers and demand for cosmetically perfect food.

Bread and pastry wasteFindings

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers is now calling for urgent action to tackle the problem of global food waste, to feed a growing population and reduce increasing pressure on the resources needed to produce food, including land, water and energy.

Key findings, based on previous research compiled in the report, include:

  • between 30 and 50 per cent, or 1.2-2 billion tonnes, of food produced around the world each year never reaches a human stomach;
  • as much as 30 per cent of UK vegetable crops are not harvested for failing to meet exacting cosmetic standards;
  • up to half of the food purchased in Europe and the USA is thrown away by the consumer;
  • about 550 billion cubic metres of water is wasted globally in growing crops that never reach the consumer;
  • it takes 20-50 times more water to produce one kilogramme of meat than one kilogramme of vegetables;
  • the demand for water in food production could reach 10–13 trillion cubic metres a year by 2050. This is 2.5 to 3.5 times greater than the total human use of fresh water today and could lead to more dangerous water shortages around the world;
  • there is the potential to provide 60-100 per cent more food by eliminating losses and waste while at the same time freeing up land, energy and water resources.

 ‘Staggering’ food losses

 Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said:

“The amount of food wasted and lost around the world is staggering. This is food that could be used to feed the world’s growing population – as well as those in hunger today. It is also an unnecessary waste of the land, water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of this food.

“The reasons for this situation range from poor engineering and agricultural practices, inadequate transport and storage infrastructure through to supermarkets demanding cosmetically perfect foodstuffs and encouraging consumers to overbuy through buy-one-get-one free offers.

“As water, land and energy resources come under increasing pressure from competing human demands, engineers have a crucial role to play in preventing food loss and waste by developing more efficient ways of growing, transporting and storing foods.

“But in order for this to happen governments, development agencies and organisation like the UN must work together to help change people’s mindsets on waste and discourage wasteful practices by farmers, food producers, supermarkets and consumers.”

Recommendations

Based on its findings, the Global Food Waste Not Want Not report recommends:

  • The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) works with the international engineering community to ensure governments of developed nations put in place programmes that transfer engineering knowledge, design know-how, and suitable technology to newly developing countries. This will help improve produce handling in the harvest, and immediate post-harvest stages of food production.
  • Governments of rapidly developing countries incorporate waste minimisation thinking into the transport infrastructure and storage facilities currently being planned, engineered and built.
  • Governments in developed nations devise and implement policy that changes consumer expectations. These should discourage retailers from wasteful practices that lead to the rejection of food on the basis of cosmetic characteristics, and losses in the home due to excessive purchasing by consumers.

‘Lack of good, hard empirical data’

While much research has been done in the UK into the amounts and causes of food waste by consumers, experts largely agree that figures on food wasted worldwide throughout the supply chain is lacking. 

Currently, estimates vary widely as to how much food is cumulatively wasted from field to fork and beyond; the most commonly quoted figure, first put forward by the Stockholm International Water Institute is that as much as half of food is wasted worldwide. However, a report released last November by Aalto University in Finland, put the figure at just 25 per cent. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers says the amount wasted is somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent.

Speaking to Resource, food waste campaigner Tristram Stuart pointed out: “There is a serious lack of good, hard empirical data on food waste. Only a few countries have done really systematic studies on food waste, and those have only done it on particular points in the supply chain.” He added that parts of the supply chain that waste substantial amounts of food, including fisheries, slaughterhouses and catering firms, are routinely omitted from research into supply chain waste.

A spokesperson for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers explained that today’s report is not based on newly commissioned research, but rather compiles and reacts to existing reports on the matter, by organisations including the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Read more about the global food waste scandal.