This article is the first in a series, focussing on food waste. Over the coming weeks, our agrifood team will explore other aspects of this problem and the innovative solutions being used to reduce waste and foster a healthier planet.
If food waste is a concern to you and your business, feel free to reach out to one of our team below.
The scale and cost of food waste
Food inflation is hitting us all – yet the average UK household spends £810 a year on food they never eat. In total, UK homes throw away 7.3 million tonnes of food and drink every year.
In the EU, food waste across all sectors accounts for at least 6% of the bloc’s total carbon emissions. The 2022 report from campaign group Feedback Global, who examine the impact of food production on the environment, estimates that this costs the EU over €143 billion per year.
Worldwide more than 900 million tonnes of food are thrown away every year, according to a UN report. The UN Environment Programme’s Food Waste Index revealed that 17% of the food available to consumers – in shops, households, and restaurants – goes directly into the bin. Around 60% of that waste is in the home. All of this adds pressure to the global farming sector, supply chains and an environment that is already under strain from conflict, changing weather patterns and increasing populations.
New research, by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has revealed a ‘hidden crisis’ in the fruit and veg sector. Fruit and vegetables make up more than a third of the almost 3.3 million tonnes of food waste each year. And many of those fruit and veg never even leave the farm gate.
The ugly veg problem
According to the report, almost half (48%) of the food wasted on farms is wasted pre-harvest. In most cases, it is left in fields because farmers do not believe it will meet standards, including standards on aesthetics.
Each year an estimated 50 million tonnes of farmed fruit and vegetables grown in Europe are discarded for being the wrong size or misshapen – that means a third of the crops harvested never even reach supermarket shelves.
In addition, up to 40% of all fruit and vegetable crops are wasted because they are ‘ugly’. The result is that thousands of tonnes of tasty, healthy vegetables are binned, because supermarket buyers want their veg to be… better-looking.
Consumer education around the extra expense and environmental impact of refusing to buy ‘ugly’ carrots and potatoes is needed. Some stores are already taking a lead on this, marketing ‘odd shapes and sizes’ for fruit and vegetables. There is also growing evidence that more UK consumers are prepared to accept ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables, amid concerns over sustainability and increasing food prices.
The hunger crisis
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has had serious repercussions for the global food system. Before the conflict, Ukraine and Russia were major exporters of grain, fertilisers and natural gas – so the combination of war and sanctions has driven up the cost of food, fuel and fertiliser. In the immediate term, there were food shortages and supply chain shocks.
All of this has highlighted the need for more diversified, efficient supply chains to consolidate global food security. As the global population continues to grow, and extreme weather becomes more frequent, we must implement measures to sustainably meet demand.
Hunger currently affects one in eight people worldwide. The hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa is on the verge of becoming a famine. Climate change has led to repeated droughts in the region over recent years. Several harvests of crops have proved disastrous, and livestock are dying from a lack of nutrition and water. The instability and lack of resources caused by climate change has itself become a driver of political instability and conflict, as desperate populations demand food, and different factions fight over scarce and precious resources.
Food inequality on our planet is nothing new. It’s bad enough that we have enough food to feed each other but fail to distribute it.
Now the food rotting in wealthy countries is accelerating climate breakdown, destroying crops in poorer nations. Many experts project that, if this pattern continues, over time we will see a sharp rise in the number of climate refugees, fleeing parts of the world that have become unfarmable and unliveable, due to climate change.
As the crises of climate, covid and the cost-of-living illustrate, our world is more interconnected than ever. This should act as an impetus to all of us, from the local to national government level, to do everything we can to reduce food waste.
Realistically, we will never fully eliminate food waste. But there are innovative steps – from the personal to the political – which can dramatically reduce it, resulting in personal savings and positive environmental impacts. Conscious buying, meal boxing, and reusing are all positive, individual actions that move us in the right direction.
Donations big and small
At the household level, small measures such as donating excess food to a food bank can make a difference in your local community.
There are an increasing number of apps, including Olio and ‘Too Good to Go’ which alert customers to unsold or soon-to-expire produce that can be purchased at a steep discount, or collected for free.
More and more businesses are also realising the financial, reputational and environmental damage of wasting food. Partnerships between companies and local homelessness charities see unsold food distributed at the end of the day, to those in need.
Social enterprises like Food Cloud collect unsold food from super-markets and warehouses before distributing it to charities who can cook it for large groups.
Intuitive fridge raids
One fun way to reduce food waste – increasingly popular on social media – is to conduct an ‘intuitive fridge raid’. Before doing their weekly shopping, home cooks conduct a ‘raid’ on their fridge, assemble all their unused ingredients, and then try to devise recipes that will turn these into tasty meals. By sharing the results with their peer group, they inspire others to follow suit, and also – in the process – share ideas for unconventional food combinations and novel cooking techniques. This is a far more fun, affordable and environmentally friendly outcome than dumping those ingredients in the bin, and ultimately landfill.
Waste fruit and vegetables can be repurposed – without processing – as animal feed. Unfortunately, this is sometimes prevented by well-intentioned but overly rigorous safety protocols, which dictate that all food must be sorted, screened, ground, dewatered, heated and dried before being given to animals. This was intended to eliminate the former practices of ‘swill feeding’ or ‘garbage feeding’ pigs, but unfortunately can prevent perfectly healthy, nutritious, but damaged veg being recycled efficiently.
These foods are relatively high in fibre. Research found that this type of food waste can be a potential feedstuff for ruminants such as sheep and pigs, given their ability to use fibre as an energy source. Recycling these wastes would minimise feedstuff competition and environmental impacts associated with disposal of such waste in the landfills.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimates that globally, 45% of fruits and vegetables are wasted along the supply chain. But with a little innovation, these can be reprocessed into functional and valuable products.
Through the process of in-vessel composting, fruit and vegetable waste can be converted into a natural soil conditioner.
At their ReFood Anaerobic Digestion plants, Saria produce energy and high-quality bio-fertilisers such as ReGrow. They take food waste and convert it into a sustainable, reliable, high-nutrient fertiliser. The relatively low production costs of these bio-fertilisers makes them a highly competitive, safe and profitable product.
Our current food system puts pressure on our environment, economy and resources. Every time we eliminate food waste – by donating, composting or re-purposing uneaten food – we save money and fuel while helping the planet.
Fruit and vegetable waste can certainly be cut down. At the personal level we can each do our part by embracing wonky veg, composting at home and embracing a creative approach to cooking leftover ingredients. We’re also supporting businesses and policy makers to engage on this, and tell the world when they do, to inspire further action.
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