The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Quantifying Food Wastage or Measuring a Monster

Posted in Food Security by NTSblog on July 17, 2012

The wastage of food is one of the most significant yet under-recognised global issues in the effort to combat food insecurity. Policy makers and food industry stakeholders alike are aware that the implications of the estimated 30-50% global food wastage for energy, soil, water and human resources are significant. Just how significant is not clear: relatively little data is available on the intricacies of food wastage and its impact on the world’s food systems. Southeast Asia as a region suffers from a lack of information on food wastage along supply chains in key food commodities. In order to address the issue, developing accurate and relevant information on the scope and causes of food wastage is essential.

Estimates suggest that up to 10% of greenhouse gas emissions result from wasted food. Beyond the environmental implications of wasted land and water resources, food losses have significance for food availability. Food prices and availability may be affected in some countries by the wastage of food traded on international markets. At the local level, losses on small farms impact the farmers and villagers who consume the food they produce.

The reasons for food waste are situation specific, but two broad trends are apparent. In developing countries, most food waste occurs at the early stages of the supply chain such as harvesting, storage and transport, with very little consumer waste. In industrialised countries, most wastage is accounted for by consumer behaviour and government interventions which promote surplus production of particular food commodities. However, this broad divide fails to capture the nuances of food wastage in Southeast Asia; including the fundamentally differing trends found in urban and rural settings.

Several key causes of food losses and waste can be identified. Poor storage facilities and lack of infrastructure cause postharvest food losses, especially for fresh food including fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. Inadequate processing facilities lead to unnecessary food losses, as does the prevalence of unsafe food. While some food processing and retailing companies have undertaken innovative steps to reuse wasted or unsold food, an attitude persists whereby disposal of food is perceived as being cheaper that using or re-using it. As Southeast Asia continues to experience the rise of corporate grocers beyond major urban areas this issue will become more pertinent. Finally, in industrialised countries and major urban centres, abundance and consumer attitudes lead to high food waste in households and the hospitality sector.

The FAO-supported Save Food Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction cites several food supply chain interventions to reduce food loss and waste, including improving production planning in alignment with markets and promoting resource-efficient production and processing practices.

Public actions to support supply chain interventions include creating an enabling policy and institutional environment, awareness raising and advocacy, and building partnerships and alliances between public and private sector stakeholders. With demand for food growing, and competition for scarce land and water resources intensifying, it is clear that actions such as these need to be taken to address the magnitude of food wasted. However, accurate estimates of extent of food wastage, the culpability of particular causes, and the efficacy of food supply chain interventions need to be ascertained first for effective and targeted action.

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