There are no simple answers to climate change, war, disease and global inequality. Or rather, these are intractable problems that no individual could reasonably hope to solve. But the global problem of food waste is a little different. With food waste, the course of action is mostly clear. Individuals can implement simple protocols to mitigate food waste. Businesses can do even more. In this report, the Boston Consulting Group shows how simple solutions could have an outsized effect on a serious global problem.
- Nearly one-third of all food is lost or wasted rather than eaten. Out of 10,000,000 apples, that’s 3,400,000 that never get eaten.
- From production to processing to transportation and retail, the site of food loss varies by region.
- Public, private and individual efforts can reduce food loss through policy, incentives, infrastructure, awareness and collaboration.
Nearly one-third of all food is lost or wasted rather than eaten. Out of 10,000,000 apples, that’s 3,400,000 that never get eaten.
Of 10,000,000 potential apples, around 13% are lost in production, leaving 8.7 million. Next, about 6% never make it past handling, storage and transportation. During processing and packaging operations, another 1% are lost, and another 6% disappear during distribution and retail. About 8% are wasted by the consumer who bought them. Added up, that’s 3,400,000 apples that fail to achieve their intended purpose. That’s just apples, but in 2030, it’s estimated that around the globe, 2.1 billion tons of food will be wasted or lost. If food waste were a country, it would make it into the top 7% of GDPs.
“If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.”
In lower-income countries, most of the loss occurs during transportation or production. This is considered food loss. In higher-income countries, food is more likely to be discarded by consumers or retailers. That’s considered food waste. Regardless of where or when the food is lost, it’s not making it into the bellies of the 10% of the human population that faces food insecurity. That’s 840 million people.
From production to processing to transportation and retail, the site of food loss varies by region.
The largest slice of food loss occurs in production. Sometimes it’s climate problems, like drought or flooding, other times it’s the death of animals. Some food loss occurs because of the dire need for cash flow. In Bangladesh, tomato farmers sometimes pick their produce prematurely to get the money they need to keep going. Transportation is a tricky time when animals must be kept alive, and produce must be kept fresh.
“With so many stakeholders and processes to blame, food waste is death by a thousand cuts.”
Processing and packaging can also present problems. A bumper crop of mango in Kenya might go to waste due to limitations in processing capacity. In sub-Saharan Africa, retail locations are unlikely to have climate control, leading to significant food waste. Wealthy countries tend to overstock, and often have promotions that contribute to food waste. Think of buy one, get one free deals, or best-buy dates that encourage consumers to buy too much, then discard produce early. In the UK, about 70% of food waste is the work of individual consumers. In North America, the average individual wastes 130 pounds of food a year, which is astounding, but the global average is actually closer to 165 pounds.
Public, private and individual efforts can reduce food loss through policy, incentives, infrastructure, awareness and collaboration.
Awareness is the first hurdle to combating food waste, and from there, governments, private companies and individuals can all take steps to move the needle on the food waste problem. First, governments can create public-private partnerships for fighting the many forces that impair food production and harvests, including weeds, pests and disease. Targeted training programs can also teach more efficient techniques to farmers and the workers who manage processing and inventories. Repurposing damaged foods under such programs can mean they’re not a total loss.
“Finding food waste solutions means rethinking supply chains, energy usage, public-private collaboration, regulation, behavioral economics, and so much more.”
Changes to product packaging could improve shelf-life, and thoughtful retail promotions could encourage customers to buy thoughtfully. Finally, consumer education is key. A food management app could keep people aware of the foods they already have in their houses and when those foods might go bad. A recipe database based on already-purchased items could also help. The financial value of wasted food rings in around $700 billion dollars, but the dollar amount pales in comparison to human suffering and environmental damage.
About the Author
The Boston Consulting Group is a global management consulting firm with offices in 50 countries throughout the world. It was founded in 1963.