ANALYSIS: Accountability for food waste becomes easier to digest

News that half the world's food supply may be going to waste has raised serious questions around our ability to manage this most essential subsistence at every point in the value chain.

Hotspot analysts must be in their element as they comb over the finer details of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers study released today, which finally puts a cost on what we as a society are throwing away – not just in terms of post-consumer habits and distribution/supply channels, but embedded impacts too.

Quantifying the amount of land, water and energy used in bringing food to our table (or at least, that which finally does reach our plates) is a huge undertaking and will lend a great deal of gravitas to this report. It is what many working in this field have been waiting for – solid facts with which to take into battle.

It is clear from the study that the world is already producing enough food to feed the entire population. Efforts to pump more investment into higher yields, led by agribusiness demand, could just exacerbate the problem in terms of generating more waste.

Instead, many knowledge leaders are calling for current agricultural and food production techniques to be reviewed, particularly in developing countries, so that smarter resource use can be optimised.

Engineers, scientists and agriculturalists across the world have the expertise, tools and systems that can assist in achieving productivity increases. The IMechE study points to the potential to provide 60% to 100% more food by simply eliminating wastage at the farmer-producer end of the supply chain.

This would also have the added benefit of freeing up land, energy and water resources for other uses. Handy when you consider that emerging economies such as Africa are starting to industrialise with high to very high population growth rates (typically doubling or tripling their populations by 2050).

But supply chains being the global beasts that they are, are highly complex which presents many challenges around sustainable sourcing and traceability.

The IMechE is calling for waste minimisation thinking to be built into the transport infrastructure and storage facilities of food-rich producing nations, but this may not happen without some form of global governance.

One organisation that could help facilitate better practice is the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, which 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.

Moves in this area would certainly help improve produce handling in the harvest, and immediate post-harvest stages of food production.

For more developed nations, consumer expectations around food need to be managed carefully – the appearance of ‘runt’ vegetables or wonky fruit being a moot point. Retailers need to be discouraged from wasteful practices that lead to rejecting food on the basis of cosmetic characteristics – still a thorny issue that has yet to be grasped.

The global perspective of the IMechE report shows the true scale of what can be achieved if we start tackling some of these issues. But it needs leadership, perhaps from outside government circles, to facilitate what will undoubtedly be intense and complex collaboration.

Maxine Perella

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie