Saturday, May 28, 2011

The global food loss and wastage problem

This story provided lighthearted amusement for some time recently, though its underlying message did not generate much debate. However, there are some interesting findings from a study released by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on trends in food loss and wastage across the world,

"Roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, which amounts to about 1.3 billion tons per year... Food wasted by consumers in rich countries (222m tonnes) is roughly equal to the entire food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230m tonnes)."

The report makes the distinction between food loss - occurring at the production, harvest, post-harvest and processing phases - and wastage - retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash. The study finds that though industrialised and developing countries waste or lose roughly the same amount of food each year – 670 m and 630 m tonnes respectively - there are important differences.

Rich countries waste food primarily at the level of the consumer and at the retailer level, especially for fruits and vegetables, by often unreasonable quality standards that over-emphasize appearance instead of safety and taste. For developing countries, the major concern is food loss due to weak infrastructure – including poor storage, processing and packaging facilities that lack the capacity to keep produce fresh. Further, on a per-capita basis, the per capita food waste by consumers in Europe and North-America is 95-115 kg/year, while this figure in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia is only 6-11 kg/year.

Apart from strengthening food supply chains (by investing in storage, processing, packaging, and transportation), the report also advocates reducing reliance on retailers like big supermarkets, promotion of direct sales of farm produce to consumers, encourages retailers and charities to work together to distribute unsold but perfectly edible food that would otherwise go to waste.

These findings come at a time when the food prices have been soaring (overall cost of food in April was 36% higher than in 2010). Last month, the World Bank said that rising food prices had pushed 44 million more people into extreme poverty, and an additional 10 million people live at the margins of falling into poverty. There are two observations in this context,

1. It is ironical that while public policy explicitly tries to lower electricity transmission and distribution losses, we are, at best, ambivalent about reducing food wastage. This is despite, food wastage being a much bigger problem than the former. More unfortunately, this issue gets even less attention than issues like energy and water conservation.

2. There is some food for thought for behavioural economists and psychologists here. Apart from the hard policy and investment-driven (more storage facilities etc) choices required for cutting down on food loss, can we also nudge people into reducing their food wastage? Such subtle nudges could be incorporated into the processes undertaken at every level in the production-marketing-consumption chain, so as to reduce the likelihood of food being wasted.

For example, one way to nudge people into lowering food consumption wastage is to encourage the purchases of smaller packets of food materials from stores. Another option is some form of restrictions on promotional offers that encourage people to buy more food than they need. Given the amounts of food wasted in hotels, are there some nudges or strategies that could enable hotels more effectively manage their cooking demand schedules? In particular, what are the strategies that enable hotels to minimize wastage from buffet spreads?

But this nudge (or shove) may be one step too far!


sai prasad said...

I think that the idea of higlighting the need to reduce food losses (as is done in power distribution) is certainly as important as food production itself. We probably need to start a debate in government to work on all poosible ideas to reduce food losses.

It has reported that the Irish are very clean eaters and do not waste any food. This behavioral aspect of the Irish, is stated to stem from the Irish potato famine. (For your Nudge)

Jayan said...

Any one who really felt the hunger (religious fast excluded) would be more careful about not easting food. My grandmother imposed only one rule in her life... that was not to waste any food.

For every problem we see, there is always a small step that could be taken at individual level. 100% utilization of food is probably difficult. Reducing the waste could be the starting point.

gulzar said...

i liked the concept of clean eating and the irish!