Global food waste presents supply chain challenge

Jon Condon, 15/01/2013


A new report compiled by the international Institute of Mechanical Engineers has found that as much as 50 percent of all food produced around the world never reaches a human stomach, due to wide-ranging supply chain issues.

Just some of the challenges identified in the study included inadequate infrastructure and storage facilities, through to overly strict ‘use-by’ dates set by food safety regulators, ‘buy-one, get-one free’ offers encouraging consumer waste, and consumers demanding ‘cosmetically perfect’ food.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers is an independent engineering society based in the UK representing more than 100,000 members in 139 countries. The body covers a wide range of manufacturing and other industries.

“With UN predictions that there could be about an extra three billion people to feed by the end of the century and an increasing pressure on the resources needed to produce food, including land, water and energy, the Institution is calling for urgent action to tackle this waste,” the group’s report said.

The report ‘Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not’ found that:

  • 30 to 50 percent (or 1.2-2 billion tonnes) of food produced around the world each year never reaches a human stomach
  • as much as 30pc of UK vegetable crops are not harvested due to them failing to meet exacting standards based on their physical appearance, while up to half of the food that’s bought in Europe and the US is thrown away by the consumer;
  • about 550 billion cubic metres of water is wasted globally each year in growing crops that never reach the consumer;
  • the demand for water in food production could reach 10 to 13 trillion m3 a year by 2050. This is 2.5 to 3.5 times greater than the total human use of fresh water today, and could lead to more dangerous water shortages around the world;
  • there is the potential to provide 60-100pc more food by eliminating losses and waste while at the same time freeing-up land, energy and water resources.

Dr Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers said the amount of food wasted and lost around the world was 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 the land, water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of this food,” he said.

“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 marketing offers.”

As water, land and energy resources came under increasing pressure from competing human demands, engineers had a crucial role to play in preventing food loss and waste by developing more efficient ways of growing, transporting and storing foods, Dr Fox said.

“But in order for this to happen, governments, development agencies and organisation like the UN must work together to help change people’s mindsets on waste and discourage wasteful practices by farmers, food producers, supermarkets and consumers,” he said.

By 2075 the UN predicts that the world’s population is set to reach around 9.5 billion, which could mean an extra three billion mouths to feed. A key issue to dealing with this population growth is how to produce more food in a world with resources under competing pressures – particularly given the added stresses caused by global warming.

“The world produces about four billion tonnes of food per year, but wastes up to half of this food through poor practices and inadequate infrastructure,” Dr Fox said.

“By improving processes and infrastructure as well as changing consumer mindsets, we would have the ability to provide 60-100pc more food to feed the world’s growing population,” he said.

Meat protein comes in for criticism

From the red meat industry’s perspective, one of the more disturbing parts of the report is the claim that the meat protein sector is ‘wasteful’ in terms of land and water resources.

“The increasing popularity of eating meat – which requires around ten times the land resources of food like rice or potatoes, is an issue in dealing with population growth and how to produce more food in a world with resources under competing pressures,” the report says.

In what appears to be a simplistic and ill-informed claim, it also suggests “it takes 20-50 times the amount of water to produce 1 kilogram of meat than 1 kilogram of vegetables.”

Such claims have been widely discredited in recent years, as they fails to acknowledge that rain falls on grazing land regardless of whether the resultant fodder is used to feed livestock.

MLA addresses a similar claim in its Red Meat, Green Facts environmental website, which addresses a series of myths about the impact of beef production on the environment.

One of the myths discussed is that it takes 50,000 litres of water to produce a kilogram of beef.

“These figures arise from 'virtual water figures',” the Red Meat, Green Facts website says.

“Virtual water figures attribute every drop of rain that falls on a farm to the production of red meat, ignoring that most of the water ends-up in waterways such as dams and rivers, is used to grow trees and plants, evaporates, or is absorbed in pastures not grazed by cattle.”

“Virtual water figures were never intended for environmental measurements,” the website says.

It suggests a more appropriate figure is from a life-cycle assessment that calculates the amount of water used to produce 1kg of beef from grazing on-farm to exiting the processing facility.

A 2009 life cycle assessment carried out by the University of New South Wales for three beef production systems in southern Australia found that it took between 27 and 540 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef – a far cry from the claims referenced by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in its recent report.

  • Further reading on the topic of life cycle assessment of water use by the beef industry can be found here




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