Food waste is a major and growing problem; it is also moving rapidly up policy, corporate and consumer agendas. Reducing food waste is a win: win solution several times over: saving the planet, people, resources and money. It may need something of a food waste revolution but the current combination of pressures, new technologies and new solutions may be enough to achieve it.

What is changing?

The size of the problem

Estimates vary, but between one third and two fifths of all food produced worldwide, are wasted. In Europe and the US we are estimated to have ‘at our disposal’ twice the amount of food we need for actual nourishment, and we waste half of it. In the USA, about 40 million tonnes of food and in the whole of Europe about 89 million tonnes are wasted; more than enough to solve the problems of undernourished and starving millions around the world.

Changing priorities

A number of factors are combining to changing hearts, minds and actions. The EU is introducing new regulations: by 2020 countries will have to reduce biomass waste to 35% of 1995 levels. Landfill taxes are rising to encourage that change: in the UK it is about to be £64 / tonne.

Companies are greening their supply chains, pursuing socially responsible strategies and wanting to reduce costs: reducing food waste in any number of ways is part of that wider shift.

Consumer budgets are under pressure. Food waste is estimated to cost consumers on average €565 per household in Europe- cost consciousness is changing behaviours.

Pressures on the global food supply chain are also growing, as the world’s population expands and greater affluence increases demand for meat- making reducing waste a higher priority than ever.

New approaches emerging

Campaign groups and companies are encouraging change.

A recent report highlighted agricultural innovations such as low tech versions of vertical farming using sacks of earth to enable farming in urban environments; protecting indigenous species which are better able to survive drought or harsh climates; bringing food, agriculture and nutrition into the curriculum in Uganda. More high tech versions of urban farming – vertical farming and farms on rooves, even supermarket rooves are spreading in the west. Locally grown food could reduce waste by shortening supply chains and encouraging more regular purchases.

Reusing waste is becoming more widespread, composting the most straight forward approach – with large organisations such as Heathrow Airport investing in turning food waste into fertiliser. Energy production is another. Friends of the Earth estimate that using Anaerobic Digestion to convert 5 million tonnes of food could provide sufficient power for 164,000 households.  An alternative approach involves the use of black soldier flies, whose larvae gorge on food waste which they convert into oil and protein; about 95% of food by weight is converted to oil providing a highly efficient conversion ratio.

Packaging that keeps food fresher longer is being tested by Marks and Spencer on their strawberry punnets. A special strip inside the pack reduces the amount of ethylene, the gas responsible for ripening fruit, thus slowing the process. The retailer sells about 1 million punnets of strawberries a week, and is hoping to reduce losses in stores and in homes. A 1% reduction in waste would be 10,000 punnets, about 200,000 strawberries.

Saving money appeals to many consumers. A new App alerts consumers to stores where food is about to reach its sell by date, thus allowing stores to reduce waste, and consumers to get a bargain. Another scheme is promoting the use of Doggy Bags in restaurants so that consumers can take home remains of meals – thus perhaps also eating less into the bargain.

Why is this important?

It is not just the food that is wasted but the water, energy and money associated in every stage of the food chain. The problem, until now, has been that high tech ‘green revolutions’ to increase production have often been more appealing than ‘lower tech’ or behaviour change solutions to reduce waste.

Reducing waste will require technology solutions but also create opportunities: to increase freshness to market by reducing transport times; changing packaging so that different pack sizes can easily be created on the one production line; making the supply chains transparent and intelligent at every stage from field to fork; providing new approaches to reduce, reuse and recyle.

Reducing food waste is a win: win solution several times over: saving the planet, people, resources and money. It may need something of a food waste revolution but the combination of pressures and new technologies may be enough.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.