50% of world's food wasted

10th January 2013

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Up to half of foodstuffs produced globally are ending up as waste due to poor farming practices, inadequate infrastructure and supermarket's unsustainable policies, warn engineers

Food producers, governments, retailers and consumers are all contributing to food waste, according to a report from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IME).

It concludes that more efficient methods of food production and transport, coupled with changes in consumer behaviour and supermarket procurement policies, could boost yields by 60-100% and prevent wasteful use of resources.

According to the study, 550 billion m3 of water is wasted globally each year in growing crops that never reach the consumer, alongside significant amounts of energy.

The IME estimate that between 1.2–2 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year as a result of not being harvested, becoming spoilt in storage or transport, or being thrown away by consumers.

In developing economies, poor farming methods, transport infrastructure and storage facilities are to blame for waste, says the report. In South-East Asia alone, 180 million tonnes of rice are lost each year. With China losing 40% of its total production and Vietnam 80%.

Meanwhile, in more developed countries, food waste is associated with crops failing to meet marketing standards for appearance, such as size and colour, or through consumer waste.

Up to 30% of vegetables grown in the UK are not harvested due to supermarket procurement policies, states the report, and across the world 1.6 million tonnes of food waste is created annually in this way.

“In economies such as the UK and US, the purchasing policies for fresh produce operated by the major supermarkets actively encourage waste in the field,” concludes the report.

It also lambasts retailers for promotions, such as buy-one-get-one-free, that encourage consumers to overbuy fresh foods, which are often then wasted. The report estimates that up to half of food bought in developed countries is thrown away by consumers.

“The amount of food wasted and lost around the world is staggering,” said Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the IME. “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 for this to happen governments, development agencies and organisations 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.”

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) rejected the report’s claim that supermarket offers were to blame for consumers wasting food.

“A government-sponsored report published last year showed that there was no link between promotions and food waste,” said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability. “The main method of promotion in this area is cutting the price rather than buy-one-get-one-free offers, which are rare.”

UK retailers are also working to reduce the amount of crops rejected due to appearance, according to Opie.

“Using more of the crop to cut food waste and increase sustainable production is an objective for all retailers. This is how we are exceeding government targets for food waste,” he said.

“It was supermarkets that lobbied Europe to relax strict marketing rules on fruit and veg to allow us to sell more misshapen produce. This has led to an enormous increase in the sale of ‘wonky’ veg.”

Currently food production accounts for 3.1% of the global energy use and 70% of water demand, according to the report. If production methods do not change, and with population levels set to rise, water demand could grow by as much as 3.5 times by 2050, it states.

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