Let’s begin with a few sobering statistics. We waste a LOT of food. 2.9 trillion pounds worldwide annually, to be exact (that’s “trillion” with a “t”), according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (2). This lost treasure represents more than 1/3 of the entire world agricultural production. In developed regions such the EU, North America and elsewhere, the wastage is even higher. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that American families throw away up to 51% of the dairy products and fruits that they purchase, 44% of the vegetables and 40% of the fresh fish, meat and poultry (3). FAO documents that in poorer countries, food is lost primarily post-harvest due to inadequate storage, logistics and shipping infrastructure. In more developed countries, most of the food loss occurs in the stream of processing, in the supply chain, at retail and in the home. Those of us in developed countries also are less attentive to conserving food sources relative to the rest of the world; our per capita rate of food waste is up to 20x higher than for residents of poorer regions.
And yet, the potential to save our precious agricultural bounty represents a gigantic untapped resource with enormous positive implications for the health of humanity and of the planet. In a world soon to reach 9 billion inhabitants, where agriculture takes up more and more land, using more of our water resources as well as the many inputs needed to grow crops, the most efficient and sustainable action we can take is to preserve and utilize the food we have already grown rather than to allow that resource to go to waste.
In the U.S. food industry, innovative companies both large and small are taking action to address the problem of food waste. At the larger end of the spectrum, Quaker Oats is participating in an ambitious new program, spearheaded by the James Beard Foundation (JBF), called “More Taste. Less Waste”. (4) According to Kris Moon, vice president of JBF, “The chefs supporting our JBF Impact Programs have taken on the issue of food waste because it is inherent in a chef’s DNA to minimize waste in their restaurants. They are not only advocates for a more sustainable food system. They have the knowledge and creativity around shopping storing and full utilization of food.” (5)
At the smaller end, many natural foods companies have put the elimination of food waste into the heart of their mission by using waste and leftover food as their main ingredients. These companies, as reported by Joey Portanova of New Hope Network in 2016 (6), include the following:
- Snact develops fruit jerky made from rejected produce for being either "too big, too small, too ugly or simply too abundant."
- Imperfect Produce delivers custom boxes of fruits and vegetables that don’t fit cosmetic standards directly to homes in the Bay Area.
- Barnana reduces food waste of organic banana farms in Latin America by upcycling "imperfect" organic bananas that don’t match size or ripeness standards, using bananas that would otherwise be left to rot.
- Misfit Juicery offers cold-pressed juices made with 70 to 80 percent recovered "ugly" fruits and vegetables (based on shape, size or color) in a variety of flavor options like strawberry/pear/lemon/ginger and pear/cucumber/spinach/lemon.
- Forager project utilizes wasted vegetable pulp from its cold-pressed juice development to produce organic tortilla chips.
- WTRMLN WTR produces cold-pressed juice using watermelons with blemishes, sunburns or other imperfections that make them otherwise unfit for commercial sale to retail
Along with innovative products and food company campaigns, food advocates are building awareness of food waste with public campaigns and events. In the UK, author and food advocate Tristam Stuart has spoken eloquently about the problems of food waste and the promise of making improvements. Readers are invited to read Mr. Stuart’s book, “Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal” (Penguin, 2009), and to view his 2012 TED talk on the issue:
UK food waste advocates have produced a series of public events in London called “Feast on the Bridge” in which thousands of chairs and endless rows of tables are set up on Southwark Bridge on the Thames River, and more than 35,000 eager diners are fed with gourmet dishes sourced 100% from discarded food. These events drive home the message that it’s possible to re-purpose millions of pounds of food waste into delicious and perfectly edible food, as reported by Matthew Fort for The Guardian. (7)
London has also been the scene to several mass public events called “Feeding the 5,000” in which Trafalgar Square in the heart of London is filled to the brim with enormous quantities of edible but discarded food, as reported by Mark King for the Guardian. (8)
In all of these activities, the goal is to mobilize society to embrace and utilize foods which are usable and nutritious but which are currently being discarded, often due to size, crooked shapes, off-colors, blemishes or other minor imperfections. The creators of the UK campaign “The Forgotten Feast” seek to generate support for nutritious foods which have been deemed unacceptable. The authors call these foods: “The Ugly, the Unwanted and the Unloved.” (9)
It’s clear that food waste is an enormous global challenge – one that needs a comprehensive solution and action plan for success in our hungry, growing and increasingly resource-constrained 21st century. The question for humanity overall, and for each of us individually, is the same: namely, what should we do, and what can we do? A lot, actually. Each of us has a role to contribute, whether it be via food innovation, via food advocacy or in something as simple as regularly using 100% of the food currently in our own refrigerators. For those of us who work in the food industry, the call to action is even more direct, because we work every day somewhere in the food supply chain, where most food waste occurs in developed countries. We each can examine how waste occurs and how systems we manage can be optimized - - in processing and packing, in distribution and logistics, in warehousing, at retail and everywhere in the system.
A hungry world with a rapidly-increasing population will put pressure on all aspects of agriculture and the environment as we strive to develop the food resources for the 21st century. Food waste is a glaring problem – and an opportunity – that presents itself for our attention and effort. We in the food industry can do much to improve the efficiency of our systems to reduce waste. We can educate and advocate to raise awareness and stimulate the public to action. We can also create new products and new processes which utilize the foods that are “Ugly, Unwanted and Unloved.” And of course, we can examine our own lives and the changes we each can make to reduce the rate at which nutritious food is discarded.
After all, a global food supply is a terrible thing to waste.
Clark Driftmier is Managing Director at Strobus Consulting, which assists clients with new product development and go-to-market business development strategies.
(1) The title “The Forgotten Feast” comes from the food advocacy program “The Forgotten Feast” created by UK food waste activists Eloise Dey and Emily Elgar and eco-chef Tom Hunt, as reported on Mr. Hunt’s website: www.tomsfeast.com
(3) Robert Lilienfeld; (Sustainable Packaging; November 01, 2017)
(4) Josh Sosland; "Quaker Foods in partnership to fight food waste" (Food Business News; October 2, 2017
(5) Stephen Daniells, “Food waste and function forward; Quaker’s new campaigns celebrate nutritional power of the oat” (Foodnavigator-USA; November 2, 2017)
(6) Joey Portanova, “Fighting food waste: Companies at the forefront” (New Hope Network; December 13, 2016)