Sustainable food production and consumption are more than just a fad: they are two areas that demand the application of scientific knowledge to expand the supply of food with lower environmental impact. In a world that faces climate change and natural resource scarcity, and which also copes with the affliction of food insecurity, reducing food losses and food waste must be a global priority.
Food production in the world, in comparison with the 2005-2007 period, needs to increase 60% by 2050 to meet the increasing demand resulting from the growth of the population in the Southern hemisphere, from the increase in consumption in developing countries, and from changes in the consumer behavior. The need for higher production generates higher pressure on scarce natural resources such as water, energy, and nutrients (phosphorus, potassium, etc.) and sheds more light on a social problem with high environmental impact: post-harvest losses and waste at the end of the supply chain.
Most of the gains required to face the challenge of increasing global food production could come from reducing waste. Food losses and food waste are a hindrance to ending hunger, reaching food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture, the second of the seventeen goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Recent FAO data reinforce the size of the problem.
The world discards approximately a third of the food that is globally produced, which is equivalent to 1.3 billion annual tons. In countries such as the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, which concentrate most of the waste at the end of the chain, the percentage of wasted food exceeds a third of the production. Even in the context of developing countries, waste at retail and consumer level is high. In such countries, losses tend to be high from the crop management and the post-harvest stages of the chain.
FAO estimates that 28% of the food that reaches the end of the chain in Latin American countries is wasted. While Brazil, for instance, discards more than it would take to neutralize food insecurity in the country, a quarter of the aggregate waste from the USA and Europe would be enough to feed the 800 million people who still starve in the world.
Thanks to agricultural research efforts and social programs like Bolsa Família, Brazil left FAO's hunger map, which lists countries with severe food insecurity indicators (above 5% of undernourishment in the population). Severe food insecurity fell from 7%, in 2004, to 3%, according to a IBGE survey from 2013. On the other hand, the country still finds 22.6% of the population at some level of food insecurity, a fact that stresses the moral dilemma of waste in contrast with the scarcity of many.
The losses at the beginning of the food chain are more common in underdeveloped countries, which cope with low technological inputs for crop management, lack of structure for production storage, and inadequate infrastructure for the outflow of the harvests. In middle and high income countries, the highest contribution to waste is from consumers. However, even at middle class level, waste can occur due to cultural factors, such as the preference for abundance at the table, excessive purchases, inadequate food storage, or even lack of interest in consuming leftovers.
At the first stage, the losses derive from inappropriate harvesting and other causes such as pest infestations, diseases, and natural disasters. After the harvest, products that deteriorate quickly are generally handled rudimentarily, which causes physical damage, and physiological and pathological deterioration.
At the post-harvest stages, losses result from the use of inadequate packaging, inappropriate transportation, non-use of refrigeration, unfamiliarity with handling techniques, inadequate display or shelving, and consumers excessively touching the products. The post-harvest losses can be classified as physiological losses (e.g. ripeness), losses due to mechanic injury (e.g. storage in inadequate boxes), or phytopathological losses (e.g. microorganism attacks).
When the consumer level is analysed, one can identify insufficient planning of purchases and other behavioral characteristics associated with consumer culture that determine waste. Labelling and packaging also contribute for losses, like the case of the waste motivated by the purchases of excessively large packages or containers that are difficult to empty.
Consumers - and hence retail - increasingly demand quality, which has also led to food being discardeds in farms because it does not meet the aesthetic standards required by some supermarket chains. The reasons why food that is fit for consumption is discarded for aesthetic reasons range from weight and size to format and coloration.
Since 2013, the year when the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched the "Save Food" initiative, several countries have started campaigns to promote sustainable food consumption or established their own goals to reduce food loss and food waste. More recently, among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations in 2015, there is the aim to "halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains by 2030".
United States, Australia, England and Italy are some of the countries with the highest waste indicators at household level. Per capita waste in Europe and North America ranges between 95 and 115 kg per year. Latin American countries still face high post-harvest losses, and waste also tends to be elevated. According to FAO data, an average of 28% of the food that reaches the end of the chain in Latin America is wasted.
While Brazil still deals with high post-harvest losses, it also presents high waste at the end of the chain. The evidence suggests that Brazil is a country that mixes characteristics of developing countries (e.g. the losses within rural properties and production outflow) with rich country-like consumer behavior, characterized by the high rate of food disposal at the end of the chain.
The amount of wasted food in industrialized countries is proportional to the total agricultural production of Subsaharan Africa. For the agricultural sector, focusing in increasing productivity is no longer enough: any optimization attempt should take place through a much more complex scenario of production, agricultural development, environment and social justice, in which the consequences of food consumption are taken into account. As current practices waste up to 50% of the food produced, we must act to promote sustainable means to reduce the waste from the farm to the supermarket and for the consumer.
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