Earth First

COVID-19 | Impacts On Food Waste

Food supply chains are complex systems with carefully orchestrated operations spread across the world. The food we purchase locally often makes a long, closely monitored journey before reaching our supermarkets. As commendable as that sounds, today's advanced food supply networks are not without shortcomings and are not immune to times of crisis.

On any regular day, inefficiencies along the food supply chain and improper management at the household level see 30% of all food that is produced ending up as waste.1 However, the past few weeks have been anything but ordinary. As the COVID-19 pandemic alters our everyday lives, it also impacts how our food is produced, procured and consumed.

COVID-19 Impact on Household Food Waste

According to a 2015 estimate, around half of the food waste in high-income countries comes from households.1 This makes consumers the biggest contributors to food waste. As a result of the coronavirus crisis, consumers’ food purchasing habits have changed drastically. Regular trips to the market to buy groceries have been replaced by stockpiling large quantities of shelf-stable foods.

Stockpiling might not result in waste immediately, but in the coming months, large amounts of food items stocked in our pantries might exceed their ‘use by’ dates and end up in the bin. Even when purchased in regular quantities, perishables such as bread, dairy products, vegetables, and fruits are amongst the most wasted food products.2 Purchasing these foods in excess will most likely increase their wastage as well.

Farmers’ Harvest Gone to Waste

Besides consumer behaviour, other changes in the food supply chain can also cause food waste. Restriction on movement and migration will affect the harvest of seasonal fresh produce. In Germany, for instance, growers of white asparagus fear that their crop might go to waste this year because seasonal workers from Eastern Europe are not allowed to cross the border.3 Depending on how long international borders remain closed, several other agricultural sectors that employ migrant workers might be faced with wasted produce.4

Similarly, due to catering businesses and restaurants being shut down, farmers and wholesale suppliers are stuck with sizeable quantities of fresh produce and food ingredients. Dutch potato farmers must now deal with a million tons of unsold potatoes because they can no longer be sold to catering businesses that turn them into fries – a popular snack in the country.5 Livestock and fishery businesses must also recalibrate their operations to match the sudden change in demand or risk wasting their products. Unlike preserved products, pivoting the course of perishable food supply chains is immensely challenging.

What’s Being Done to Mitigate These Issues?

The situation, however, is not without a silver lining. While the scale of the current crisis is unprecedented, so is our access to information and technology. From social media users sharing ideas for utilising kitchen scraps to community-led initiatives for food redistribution, food is being treated as a valuable shared resource. Innovative interventions to ensure food security and, in turn, minimise food waste are making appearances all over the world.

Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak in China, ended up with several thousand tons of unsold food products.6 After transportation restrictions were lifted on March 25th, a large portion of these products was saved from going to waste because people from across the country purchased them rapidly, which eased Hubei’s burden. Many spontaneous initiatives have been organised in countries that are at an earlier stage of the pandemic as well.  In the Netherlands, a non-profit digital marketplace has been set up for suppliers with excess stock to sell their products directly to consumers.7 The Norwegian government is encouraging those who have lost their jobs because of the crisis to take up temporary employment in the agricultural sector and replace migrant workers this season.8 Several organisations, such as Disney parks in the US and supermarkets in Belgium, have donated their excess supplies to food banks.9,10

Adaptations such as these show us that through collective action, we can rapidly bring about systemic change. The pandemic will likely increase food waste, but it might also leave us with new perspectives and ideas to tackle the problem. Through small actions such as purchasing only how much we can consume or supporting local initiatives to reduce food waste, we can help improve the situation to a great extent - during the COVID-19 crisis and long after it ends.

The authors originally wrote this piece for Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. Read the piece in Dutch here.

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