Half of the world’s food production goes to waste, says a new report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a UK based institution.
About four billion metric tons of food is produced per annum. Yet because of poor handlings during harvesting, transportation shortage as well as market and consumer wastage around 50 per cent or 2 billion metric tons of the produce never reach people.
The report also states that the figure doesn’t reflect the fact that large amount of land, energy, fertilizer and water have also been lost in the production of the foodstuffs that will later end up as a waste.
The United Nations prediction for the global population is to reach 9.5 billion by 2075 meaning there will be extra three billion more people to feed by the end of the century, a period in which substantial changes are anticipated in the wealth, calorific intake and dietary preferences of people in developing countries across the world.
In 2010, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers identified three principal emerging population groups across the world, based on characteristics associated with their current and projected stage of economic development. Each group over the coming decades will need to address different issues surrounding food production, shortage and transportation as well as consumer expectation.
In the developing world such as those in the Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, wastage tends to occur primarily at the farmer-producer end of supply chain. Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure means that produce is often handled poorly and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions.
When it comes to developed nations like the UK, more-efficient farming practices and better transport, storage and processing facilities ensure that a larger proportion of the food reaches the market and then consumers. However, even though large portion of the produce makes it to the market, because of characteristics associated with modern consumer culture meaning produce is often wasted through retail and customer behavior.
The study states that major supermarkets, in meeting consumer expectations, will usually reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because their physical characteristics such as size and appearances, don’t meet marketing standards.
The report further states that up to 30 percent of the UK’s vegetable crop is never harvested as a result of such practices. Globally, retailers generate 1.6 million tons of food waste annually in this way. Of the produce that does appear in the supermarket, commonly used sales promotions frequently encourage customers to purchase excessive quantities which, in the case of perishable foodstuffs, inevitably generate wastage in the home. Overall between 30 percent and 50 percent of what has been bought in developed countries is thrown away by the purchaser.
During the last five decades, improved farming techniques and technologies have helped to significantly increase crop yields. However, with global food production already utilizing about 4.9Gha of the 10Gha usable land surface available, a further increase in farming area without impacting unfavorably on what remains of the world’s natural ecosystems appears unlikely. The challenge is that an increase in animal-based production will require greater land and resource requirement, as livestock farming demands extensive land use.
One hectare of land can, for example, produce rice or potatoes for 19–22 people per annum. The same area will produce enough lamb or beef for only one or two people. Considerable tensions are likely to emerge, as the need for food competes with demands for ecosystem preservation and biomass production as a renewable energy source.
When it comes to energy, it is an essential resource across the entire food production cycle, with estimates showing an average of 7–10 calories of input being required in the production of one calorie of food. Since much of this energy comes from the utilization of fossil fuels, wastage of food potentially contributes to unnecessary global warming as well as inefficient resource utilization.
And then there is water. Over the past century, fresh water abstraction for human use has increased at more than double the rate of population growth. Currently about 3.8 trillion m3 of water is used by humans per annum. About 70 percent of this is consumed by the global agriculture sector, and the level of use will continue to rise over the coming decades.
The report suggests that better irrigation can dramatically improve crop yield and about 40 percent of the world’s food supply is currently derived from irrigated land. In addition, people continue to use wasteful systems, such as flood or overhead spray, which are difficult to control and lose much of the water to evaporation.
In order to begin tackling the challenge, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers recommends that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) works with the international engineering community to ensure governments of developed nations put in place programs that transfer engineering knowledge, design know-how and suitable technology to newly developing countries, Governments of rapidly developing countries incorporate waste minimization thinking into the transport infrastructure and storage facilities currently being planned, engineered and built and Governments in developed nations devise and implement policy that changes consumer expectations. These should discourage retailers from wasteful practices that lead to the rejection of food on the basis of cosmetic characteristics, and losses in the home due to excessive purchasing by consumers.
Dr Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers stated that the amount of food wasted and lost around the world is staggering. This is food that could be used to feed the world’s growing population as well as those in hunger today.
“It is also an unnecessary waste of land, water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of this food. The reasons for this situation range from poor engineering and agricultural practices, inadequate transport and storage infrastructure through to supermarkets demanding cosmetically perfect foodstuffs and encouraging consumers to overbuy through buy-one-get-one-free offers.”
The institution said the demand for water for food production could reach 10 to 13 trillion cubic meters a year by 2050.
Toine Timmermans, from Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, described the Institution of Mechanical Engineers publication as a “relevant report that draws attention to an important issue and topic”.
But he added that based on years of research he reached the conclusion that the amount of food waste which is around 2 billion tons a year is unrealistically high.
Tristram Stuart, from food waste campaign group feeding the 5000, said: “Amazingly, there has been no systematic study of food waste at the farm level either in the UK or elsewhere in Europe or the US. He stated that in his experience, its normal practice for farmers to assume that 20% to 40% of their fruit and vegetable crops won’t get to market, even if they are perfectly fit for human consumption.”
Tom Tanner, from the Sustainable Restaurants Association also stated that it is in the power of major retailers, convenience shopping and supermarkets on everyone’s doorstep; people can nip out and buy a ready-made meal in 2 minutes rather than make use of what’s in their fridge.
He added that the weight of food equivalent to three double decker buses is thrown away per restaurant per year in the UK, only 30% of that is off the consumer’s plate.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers was established in 1847 and has some of the world’s greatest engineers in its history books. It currently has about 100,000 members, representing mechanical engineers involved in a diversity of fields such as the automotive, rail, aerospace, medical, and power and construction industries.
(Compiled by Eskedar Kifle)