If the world is to feed its predicted population of 9 billion in 2050, the issue of food waste must be addressed. By Dr Ramy Salemdeeb and Dr Adam Read argue the case for a two-tier approach.
A two-tier approach, in which developed nations implement waste reduction projects in developing countries offer the greatest benefits to all?
According to the majority of waste professionals, prevention strategies are the ace card of alleviating both the environmental burdens of food waste and improving food security.
This overarching consensus has led to a recent shift in government policies towards the introduction of waste prevention targets such as the Scottish Government's 33% food waste reduction by 2025 as part of the new Circular Economy Strategy: Making Things Last. Food waste prevention has also been featured in two recent reports: the Clean Growth Strategy, and the National Infrastructure Commission report.
However, there are drawbacks of nation-specific prevention targets and introduce an innovative concept which will help meet the UN Sustainable Development target to halve food waste by 2030 and ensure food security.
In a world where food is internationally traded, and the food supply chain is inextricably intertwined across countries, there is a compelling need to address the issue of food waste as a global challenge – not as an issue that is constrained to the geographical borders of one country or another, or in the UK between the devolved administrations.
Global food losses
Numerous reports have concluded that huge quantities of food waste are generated throughout the global food system. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 50% of vegetables and fruits in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America is wasted before reaching our homes.
These food losses, which are generated at early stages of the food value chain such as during agriculture, post-harvest, processing and distribution, occur mainly in developing countries and can be traced back to financial, managerial and technical constraints in harvesting techniques as well as often inappropriate or inefficient storage and cooling facilities.
Environmental burdens of a global food system
In a finite world with limited resources, we should also remind ourselves that vast quantities of energy and resources are consumed across the food supply chain and consequently increase the overall environmental burden of food production.
In a research project published in the Waste Management Journal, we quantified the environmental benefits of preventing food waste being generated by UK households. Our analysis takes into consideration the fact that nearly half of food consumed in the UK is produced overseas.
The study model, developed using an innovative hybrid life-cycle assessment model, coupled with a highly detailed multi-regional, and environmentally extended input output tool, estimates that food waste prevention could lead to substantial reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the order of 706 to 896 kg CO2-eq. per tonne of food waste prevented, with most of these savings (78%) occurring as a result of avoided food production beyond UK borders, particularly in developing countries.
Our analysis shows that food waste prevention targeting foodstuffs produced in India alone could help to reduce UK households’ food bill by 6% and contribute to substantial GHG reductions of nearly 18%.
In this particular example, the rice-products category is the largest contributor to these savings which would be made across several industries in India, such as coal-based electricity (50%), nitrogen fertiliser (18%), phosphorus fertiliser (4%) and the paddy-rice sector (9%).
Two-tiered prevention targets
The importance of addressing the growing issue of food waste across the global supply chain can be quantitatively confirmed, in particular in developing countries where food is produced using both energy-intensive and resource-draining technologies.
For example, the findings show that foodstuffs produced in the UK tend to have less environmental burdens than those of foodstuffs sourced abroad due to the reasonably efficient food production system and low-carbon energy sources used in the production and manufacturing of food products in the UK.
On the contrary, food production technologies in developing countries are inefficient and depend heavily on conventional fossil-fuel energy sources and synthetic fertiliser. Therefore, further emphasis should be placed on improving the efficiency of food waste production beyond UK borders, in particular in developing countries, if the UK is indeed to lead the world in sustainability and food security.
In order to achieve our target, the introduction of a two-tier prevention target system that aims to tackle the issue of food waste locally as well as beyond the geographical borders of the UK is proposed. This scheme, which includes onshore and offshore targets, will encourage food retailers to invest in the downstream agri-food supply chain and claim credits towards their overall prevention targets.
The proposed scheme works as follows: retailers will be able to claim credits towards their onshore target by providing evidence of food waste diversion that occurs as a consequence of investment in their local supply chain.
Regarding the offshore target, we propose a similar approach to that of the UK Packaging Recovery Note system where retailers can claim credits towards their offshore targets by purchasing Food Waste Diversion Notes (FWPNs), documents issued by accredited re-processors/organisations that have invested in projects downstream within the agri-food supply chain.
FWPN issuers will be able to generate FWPNs again based on food waste diversion that can be attributed to their investment in improving the supply chain. These FWPNs can then be sold to UK retailers in order to help them meet their offshore targets.
Radical? Yes, but isn’t this just the kind of step change needed to drive both local and global improvements in the food production system? The UK could take the lead, and others would follow as the green credentials and PR opportunities for some global brands would come to the fore.
The introduction of this system will prove to be monitored by relevant authorities to ensure compliance. Our approach may also face other challenges such as potentially fraudulent practices. Nevertheless, we strongly believe that all potential challenges could be identified and resolved whilst piloting the scheme here in the UK.
In order to ensure successful implementation, we recommend launching the project in one developing nation initially. We also suggest partnering up with the Department for International Development (DFID), the United Kingdom’s government department which is responsible for administrating overseas aid to end extreme poverty and food security.
DFID's extensive experience in designing and implementing projects in developing countries could prove essential in ensuring effective implementation and constitutes a trustworthy partner with whom to test the scheme. DFID, along with potential collaboration from DEFRA and others, will issue FWPNs that could then be purchased by UK retailers.
The revenue generated will subsequently find its way back into expanding projects of future benefit to the retailer, the food chain and the country of origin and consumption, thus improving the global food supply chain and further ensuring food security in multiple regions.
This collaboration will not only help retailers to ensure the efficiency of the global agri-food supply chain but also fight food poverty and manage to feed 9 billion, the planet’s predicted global population in 2050.