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Tackling Food Loss: Why 14% of Food Never Reaches Our Plate

Around 560 million tonnes of food produced every year never gets sold. Discover how we lose so much food and what we can do about it.

The concept of food loss might sound simple, but there’s an important difference between food that is lost and food that is wasted. Food is considered lost when it goes bad or is destroyed before it ever reaches the consumer - this could be during production, storage, processing or distribution.1 As it stands, around 14% of the 4 billion tonnes of food produced every year falls into this category.2 Food waste, on the other hand, is when edible food is discarded after reaching consumers or retail establishments such as restaurants and shops.2

While food loss has long been thought to occur more in lower-income countries, which are often harder hit by the impacts of climate change and have less developed storage, processing, and distribution systems, it’s become clear that no country is immune to food loss.3 Despite higher-income countries tending to experience more food waste than loss, an FAO study found that 15.7% of food produced in Northern America and Europe is lost before reaching the point of sale, which is more than the 14% lost in Sub-Saharan Africa.4

How does food become 'lost'?

Food losses can be caused by extreme weather events, like droughts or flooding, to pests, lack of improper storage, inadequate transport facilities, technical malfunctions, overproduction or even human error - to name a few.15 And these causes are often hyper-regionalised. For example, observations of food loss by the FAO found that up to 50% of fruit and vegetables lost in Sub-Saharan Africa were lost on-farm in post-harvest operations, compared to up to 7.7% at the same phase in Central and Southern Asia.4 This suggests that solutions must be adapted to each context, and knowing how and why specific foods are lost is going to be key to solving the problems in each region. Here are a few cases from around the world to show how food is lost throughout our supply chains.

Around 14% of the 4 billion tonnes of food produced every year never gets sold.

1. Perishing in production

In Pakistan and India, around 10% of rice is lost during production.5 These losses, if representative, equate to 41 million tonnes of rice lost yearly in South and South East Asia alone.5 (To put that into context, that’s about 14 times more rice than the EU annually grows and imports combined).14

Many of these losses are due to the increasing incidence of extreme weather patterns that destroy crops, including drought and flash flooding.6 But losses also occur because farmers grow rice varieties, such as basmati, which are less suitable for the regional soil type and terrain and require more synthetic inputs, such as pesticides.

Farmers grow these varieties because high consumer demand means they fetch higher prices.5 But they often have lower yields and higher losses because the crops are not adapted to the local conditions.5

2. Souring in storage

Food is also lost during storage before it heads out for the point of sale. This is a particular problem in India, the world’s banana producer.6 Around 12% of India’s bananas are grown in Tamil Nadu state.7 But over the years, farmers in that region have witnessed losses of up to 30% after harvest.8

A study by Danish energy technology company Danfoss and the Confederation of Indian Industry found a lack of cold stores caused the losses.8 Without access to a cold chain, the farmers kept the bananas outside refrigerated stores in temperatures which fluctuated depending on the weather and time of day. This reduced the bananas’ shelf life from around 35 to just 7 days.8

Although farmers could sell up to 70% of their produce before it rotted, the remainder decayed before anyone could buy it.8

3. Decaying in distribution

Sweden struggles to grow cucumbers all year round due to the cool climate. Stockholm instead imports cucumbers from warmer countries, such as Spain - which relies on a long journey by truck.

The problem is that it’s tough to maintain optimal cool temperatures on the road.13 A study sponsored by Danfoss found that by the time cucumbers had completed their journey from Spain to Sweden, they had 2.2. fewer days of shelf life than when they left.

The reduced shelf life meant the Swedish supermarkets had to discount the cucumbers sooner than expected or throw away the produce, resulting in food loss.

How can we tackle food loss?

The solutions to food loss are as varied as the reasons behind it. But there are also a number of solutions that already exist to tackle some of the challenges explored in the case studies we’ve just explored.

1. Community-led climate mitigation

One possible solution for rice loss caused by extreme weather events like drought could be reviving projects like the Water Cup, an annual competition that saw people from Maharashtra State compete to store the most water during the monsoon season.9

Known as “the people's movement against drought”, the competition offered villagers across Maharashtra a four-day residential training, teaching watershed science and how to dig canals and reservoirs with simple, low-cost tools like pickaxes and shovels.

According to the Paani Foundation, which designed the competition, many lives have been transformed. For example, Karkel village used to rely on the arrival of a water tank for survival. They stored enough monsoon rain to last an entire year, and Velu village saw the barren landscape become green.9 Villages across the region have reported overflowing wells and rivers where there used to be drought. And even if the villages storing the most water received large cash prizes - no one was a “loser” in this cup. In four years, the competition made 4,706 villages more water-secure.10

Read how climate change is impacting the dairy farmers of Maharashtra

Running similar incentives across Pakistan and India could help prevent future food losses by ensuring farmers have enough water to sustain their crops in periods of low rainfall.9

2. Change government policy

Losses that occur because of crop varieties unsuited to a region could be reduced by a change in Indian government policy. Current policy encourages farmers to grow less hardy, hybrid species bred in faraway labs and designed for intensive cultivation.11,5

But farmers in the Koraput region of Odisha state have for years been growing and protecting heirloom varieties that have been adapting for centuries to the local pests, soil and weather conditions.11

A change in Indian government policy that rewards farmers for growing heirloom varieties could result in fewer losses because the crops are better able to survive in the local climatic conditions. This would have to be met with consumers who are open to trying new varieties - not just their beloved basmati.

Find out how senior farmers in rural India are protecting heirloom crop varieties

3. Develop the cold chain

In the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, warm temperatures cause the loss of 20% of bananas. Improving cold storage would significantly reduce this waste.8

For example, a cold store and ripening chamber for use by 400 banana farmers was installed in Tamil Nadu as part of an initiative to reduce losses by Danish energy technology company Danfoss and the Confederation of Indian Industry. The new infrastructure allowed farmers to pre-cool newly harvested bananas, extending their shelf life and improving the quality of the fruit.8

“Cold storage and better training to manage it is a game changer. These two interventions have resulted in up to three times higher value for the farmers as well as the wastage reduction,” Henrik Skov Nygaard, strategy director for cold chain logistics at Danfoss, told FoodUnfolded.

4. Build dry stores

Another solution would be increasing the size and quantity of dry stores available for use by all farmers. In June, the Indian government approved plans to build several 2,000-tonne grain stores across the country.12

The increased local storage could help prevent food losses by reducing the chance of grain getting damaged in transport. Grain will also travel less distance from storage to market, reducing exposure to weather and pests.

5. Use technology to determine shelf life

AI-powered scanners like those released in 2023 by OneThird - a food tech company based in the Netherlands - could also solve losses in the distribution chain. Staff scan a fruit sample from a delivery batch on arrival at supermarkets, with data about the produce running through AI-powered software. This generates precise information about a product's shelf life, which OneThird claims is more reliable than the time-consuming and subjective tests traditionally carried out by people.13

The benefit is that all compatible produce can be scanned by one scanner, making it inexpensive - and OneThird claims the scanner reduces waste by up to 25%.13 But it is a labour-intensive solution because employees have to scan all the produce manually, and it is currently only used for specific fruits and vegetables, so it is not a fully developed solution.

Find out about how AI will shape the future of our food

6. Improve supply chain monitoring

An alternative used in a cucumber experiment is to monitor the temperature of produce pallets at every stage of the distribution chain. Keeping a closer eye on temperatures helps reduce losses as supermarkets know when to reduce the price to ensure it is sold before rotting.14 But ideally, you would need to monitor every single box of cucumbers on every pallet a truck is transporting, which becomes both labour-intensive and costly.

“Having a monitor in each one means each supermarket gets tailored information about the journey of those specific cucumbers, but currently, it’s simply too expensive,” Nygaard said, adding that a temperature sensor small enough to fit in a pallet, of which there are between 25 and 33 on a standard European lorry, currently costs around 200 USD.

For now, the price of using technology on every pallet would outweigh any cost savings made by reducing food waste on the journey.

Finding a balance

The 1.3 billion tonnes of annual edible food loss is worth $750 billion. This expensive problem undermines food security and affects our climate. The global carbon footprint of food loss and waste, excluding emissions from land use change, is estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of greenhouse gases each year.3

“Without tackling food loss and waste, we will not be able to achieve the Paris Agreement targets,” Dr Liz Goodwin, Senior Fellow and Director of Food Loss and Waste at the World Resources Institute, told FoodUnfolded.

“This is because when food is not eaten, it is not only the food that has been wasted but also the water, land, energy, labour and money used in the food’s production.”

The great news is that many solutions already exist or are being tested. However, it’s worth noting that not all solutions have positive effects the whole way along food supply chains. For example, reducing losses in processing will lead to increased supply and lower prices for the consumer. However, it will also mean farmers see a reduced demand for their produce, which could reduce their income.

Food loss is a complex and global problem. So, we must devise equally nuanced and flexible solutions - for the sake of people and the living planet.

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References
  1. Harvard School of Public Health (Undated). “Food Waste”. Harvard. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  2. World Food Programme (Undated). “Five facts about food waste and hunger”. WFP. Accessed 17 November 2023.
  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (2013). “Food wastage footprint: Impacts on natural resources”. UN. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (2019). “Moving forward on the state of food loss and waste reduction”. UN. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  3. WWF-UK (2021). “Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Loss and Waste on Farms”. WWF. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  4. Parija, Beniwal (2022). “India’s faltering rice output can cause a new food crisis”. Al Jazeera. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  5. National Horticultural Board (2022). “Indian production of bananas”. Agri Exchange. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  6. Danfoss (2020). “Banana dreams come true in Tamil Nadu”. Danfoss. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  7. Paania Foundation (2018) “From Drought To Prosperity (Hindi) | Paani Foundation | Satyamev Jayate Water Cup”. Paani Foundation. Accessed 11 December 2023.
  8. Paani Foundation (2019). “Satyamev Jayate Water Cup”. Paani Foundation. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  9. Choudhury (2017). “Why India’s farmers want to conserve indigenous heirloom rice”. The Guardian. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  10. Anon (2023). “Union Cabinet approves Rs 1 lakh crore scheme to increase grain storage capacity in cooperative sector”. The Times of India. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  11. OneThird (2023). “Bakker Barendrecht Deploys OneThird’s AI-Powered Produce Scanners”. OneThird. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  12. Ghantous (2022). “Cool bananas: Efficient cold chain technology for a clean agriculture boom”. Energy Monitor. Accessed 24 October 2023.
  13. European Commission (Undated). “Rice:
  14. Lai (2022). “Explainer: What is Food Surplus?”. Earth.org. Accessed 17 November 2023.
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