What governments, farmers, food businesses – and you – can do about food waste
Reduce and prevent
One major front for action in the effort to reduce food wastage is developing better food harvest, storage, processing, transport and retailing processes, according to FAO's guide, Toolkit: Reducing the Food Wastage Footprint, released alongside its new report on the environmental consequences of food waste.
Harvest losses have several causes, including bad timing and poor conditions during the harvest as well as inadequate techniques and equipment. Similarly, lack of good infrastructure for transportation, storage, cooling and marketing cause food to spoil, especially in hot climates.
Both the private and public sectors need to increase investments to address such shortcomings; doing so will also have additional benefits for food security and mitigating climate change, land degradation and biodiversity erosion.
In addition to these core investments, new technologies can help too. Improved rice-storage bags in the Philippines have helped cut losses of that staple grain by 15 percent. In West Africa, use of solar dryers to extend the shelf life of fruit and tubers is showing promise in reducing post-harvest losses.
Often, food losses can be significantly reduced simply through training farmers in best practices - this too merits investing in, according to FAO's toolkit.
Joining farmers together in cooperatives or professional associations can help to greatly reduce food losses by increasing their understanding of the market, enabling more efficient planning, enabling economies of scale and improving their ability to market what they produce.
On the retail and consumer side, raising awareness of the problem - and how to prevent it - is just as important, according to FAO.
And businesses and households alike need to implement better monitoring to improve data on the scale of wastage and where it occurs.
Business - both those operating within the food chain and others with a large "food footprint" (large cafeterias, for instance) - can conduct food waste audits to determine how and why they waste food and identify opportunities to improve their performance.
Households can conduct relatively simple food waste audits as well.
Better communication among all participants in food supply chains will be crucial. In particular, there is vast room for improving communication between suppliers and retailers to match demand and supply. Discrepancies between demand and supply are a major cause of food wastage. They can involve farmers not finding a market for products and leaving them to rot in the field; mothers cooking for five family members while only three actually make it to dinner; supermarkets downsizing product orders at the last minute, leaving producers with unsalable products; or restaurants overestimating demand and overstocking food supplies that go bad.
Reduced, or better, food packaging has a role to play as well - excessive or unsustainably sourced packing forms part of the environmental cost of food.
Especially in developed countries, more environmentally-minded food retailing is needed, says FAO - for example, moving away from the practice of displaying very large quantities of food (perceived as contributing to increased sales) or discarding food when it starts to approach the end of its shelf life.
Rejection of food products on the basis of aesthetic or safety concerns is often another a major cause of food losses and waste. In some cases, farmers discard between 20-40 percent of their fresh produce because it doesn't meet retailer's cosmetic specifications.
Regulations and standards on aesthetic requirements for fruit and vegetables could stand to be revised. Some supermarkets have already begun relaxing their standards on fruit appearance, selling "misshaped" items for a reduced price and helping raise consumers' awareness that odd-shaped does not mean bad.
Better consumption habits are also badly needed. In developed countries, a significant part of total food wastage occurs at the consumer level; in some places this is a trend that continues to rise.
In addition to conducting household food waste audits, consumers can take many steps to reverse these trends, such as: making weekly menu plans, buying so-called "ugly fruits and vegetables," ensuring that refrigerators are working properly, using wilting produce in soups, and making better use of leftovers. Smaller servings, rotating older food items towards the front of shelves and refrigerators, freezing surplus items, and composting waste can also help.
One factor that often contributes to food waste by consumers is confusion over sell-by and best-before dates, notes the FAO toolkit. In some cases "overzealous" legislation has been adopted and should be revisited and revised; lawmakers and other authorities should also issue clearer and more flexible guidelines for businesses and consumers alike.
Governments must do more to implement legislation aimed at lowering food wastage, says FAO. According to the toolkit, "Legislators will have to adopt a range of measures which may vary from broad policy frameworks to statements of intent, from soft law measures like recommendations and guidelines to more decisive legislation, such as directives, regulations and statutory acts."
Markets for products that wouldn't normally stay in the food chain must be developed, argues Reducing the Food Wastage Footprint. Gleaning, for example, is the practice of gathering groups that would, for one reason or the other, be left in the fields to rot and be plowed under. In some places, entrepreneurs have spotted opportunities in acquiring such produce at reduced rates and marketing it, developing new food value chains.
Similarly, markets can be developed for products rejected by retailers but still good for consumption - farmers' markets are already playing a role here.
Redistributing safe surplus food to those in need represents "the best option" for dealing with food waste, argues FAO's study.
At present, the amount of food redistributed to charities that feed people remains a tiny fraction of the edible surplus food available, due to the fact that such food redistribution faces a number of barriers.
"Retailers are largely influenced by the idea that it is cheaper and easier to send wastage to the landfill, although higher landfill taxes are now working as a deterrent," explains FAO's toolkit. But, it adds, the factor that has most deterred businesses from donating food surpluses is the risk of being held legally liable in case of intoxication, illness or other injury. Increasingly, governments are looking at ways to smooth the process and afford protections to food donors should products given away in good faith cause illness.
In order for cities and local governments to efficiently and effectively recycle food waste, actions taken at the household level to separate it out are essential -- recycling schemes only work when waste is properly sorted at the source. Judiciously used, regulations can spur businesses and households to reduce food waste and better manage it when it is time to recycle.
Rather than merely disposing of such waste in landfills, the use of anaerobic digestion to break it down into digestate -- which can be used as fertilizer -- and biogas, which can be used as an energy source or injected into the gas grid -- is environmentally preferable to both composting and landfill disposal.
Where digestion is not possible, composting represents the best fall-back option. At the individual level, home composting can potentially divert up to 150 kg of food waste per household per year from local collection authorities.
Finally, incineration of food waste with the energy released being recovered presents the option of last resort for preventing food waste from ending up in landfills. Methane emissions from landfills represent one of the largest source of GHG emissions from the waste sector.