Industry News | December 19, 2012

Cutting Waste Can Reduce Sustainability Challenges

A growing body of evidence suggests tackling food waste could help resolve many of the sustainability challenges faced by the food industry. A number of studies are linking food losses and waste to food inflation, food security, resource inputs, and climate change.

The global food industry is experiencing its third bout of food inflation in five years because of poor agricultural harvests in the U.S., Russia, and South America.

Analysts predict the average basket of food prices will rise by 15 percent by June 2013. The hike in food prices is raising concerns about food security and its political and social repercussions. Food shortages and price hikes have previously been responsible for riots in developing countries.

With the global population projected to rise to 9 billion in 2050 and resources becoming increasingly strained, there is a growing realization that raising production levels alone will not solve the problems facing the food industry.

As will be shown at the Sustainable Foods Summit in San Francisco from January 22–23, 2013, greater efficiency in supply chains can raise food output and help reduce consumer prices.

In a paper at the summit, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) will show how a third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted in the supply chain.

Inadequate storage and distribution is the major cause of losses in developing countries, whilst waste at retail and consumer levels is most responsible in affluent countries.

A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that food wastage in the U.S. amounts to $165 billion. The cost to the average American family is $2,275 per year. At the same time, more than 15 percent of the population struggles to find enough food.

Apart from the social and economic implications of food waste, there are environmental impacts. About 121 billion pounds (54.9 million metric tons) of food is wasted in the U.S., with two-thirds going to landfill.

Food waste in landfill is a major contributor to global warming, creating almost a quarter of methane gases. Agriculture also requires resources that are becoming increasingly scarce; uneaten food takes up 25 percent of the fresh water and 4 percent of the oil used in the U.S.

Realizing the importance of tackling food waste, American food manufacturers, retailers, and restaurant operators formed The Food Waste Reduction Alliance (FWRA) last year. The alliance aims to reduce the amount of food waste going to landfill and increase food donations to hungry people.

At the Sustainable Foods Summit, FWRA will state the importance of a collaborative approach to reduce food waste: how the private sector needs to work with the government and NGOs.

Landfill diversion is the focus of most retailers and foodservice operators. A growing number of such enterprises are setting up food-recovery programs whereby food is diverted from landfill to hunger-relief agencies, and/or for use in animal feed, composting, or industrial applications.

Feeding America operates the largest food-recovery program, operating more than 200 food banks that serve almost 40 million Americans a year.

Retailers are also becoming aware of the economic benefits; reducing waste means lower hauling costs to landfill. Whole Foods Market, the largest chain of natural food shops in North America, is successful with composting food waste. More than 75 percent of its stores have set up composting programs.

Some retailers have gone further by adopting a zero-waste policy. Four Albertson stores in California have achieved zero-waste classification, whereby 95 percent of their waste is diverted from landfill. Foodservice operators like the Bon Appetit Management Company and Sodexo have also introduced programs to reduce waste.

A major challenge, however, is changing consumer behavior, especially since about 44 percent of food waste comes from households.

The role of food companies and retailers to encourage responsible consumption will be discussed at the Sustainable Foods Summit. Such methods include educating consumers on how to read food product labels, shop wisely, and use food more efficiently.

Tackling Food Waste is a focal theme of the third North American edition of the Sustainable Foods Summit. The summit will bring together leading organizations involved in tackling food losses and waste.

Papers will be given by FAO United Nations, Natural Resources Defense Council, Food Waste Reduction Alliance, Whole Foods Market, Bon Appetit Management Company, and Feeding America, among others.