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Food waste or postharvest food losses?

Recently issues of global food losses and food waste have been making the news, with estimates of 30 to 40% of the food produced on earth going to waste before it can be consumed.

A UNFAO report published in 2011 distinguishes between food loss and food waste.  Food losses, which occur during the harvest, post-harvest and processing phase, are most important in developing countries, due to poor infrastructure, poor temperature management, low levels of technology and low investment in the food distribution systems, especially the cold chain. Food waste is more of a problem in industrialized and developed countries, like the USA and the UK, and are most often caused by retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foods into the trash.   The full FAO report is available online for free download: http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/ags/publications/GFL_web.pdf

The Postharvest Education Foundation is involved in work to address both of these issues by providing information, advice, training and mentoring of young professionals who are involved in the fields of agriculture, horticulture, home economics and food processing. 

FOOD LOSSES

Key factors affecting food losses and the gaps in knowledge/skills that we have identified:

·         Poor understanding of harvest indices of plant foods and how maturity is related to quality and shelf life

·         Poor sorting and grading practices during preparation for market, allowing damaged /decaying foods to enter the supply chain and spread decay to other foods

·         Poor temperature management and lack of control of relative humidity, leading to shriveling, wilting and deterioration of perishable foods

·         Poor quality packages which provide little or no protection during handling, transport and storage

·         Delays in marketing without proper storage (cool storage for perishables, drying of staple grains/beans/legumes before storage)

·         General lack of education on appropriate postharvest handling practices and technologies, leading to rough handling, mechanical damage, improperly handled mixed loads, and food safety dangers

·         Lack of the utilization of sustainable cost effective postharvest practices, leading to high levels of food losses on the farm, and in wholesale and retail markets

 

FOOD WASTE

Key factors affecting food waste and the gaps in knowledge/skills that we have identified:

·         Over-sorting and over-grading on the farm and in the packinghouse based on strict guidelines that have more to do with appearance (color, size, shape) than nutritional value or eating quality, leading to higher discards of edible foods

·         Poor choice of packages and packaging materials, with focus on cosmetic features rather than on strength, cleanliness, ventilation, moisture control, etc., which would help extend shelf life

·         Over-reliance on long term cold storage, refrigeration and freezing, leading to development of off-flavors, chilling injury and freezer burn, causing discards of improperly stored foods along the supply chain

·         Confusing or unnecessary “sell-by” or “use-by” dates, based upon cosmetic changes or inventory management schemes rather than on food safety concerns, leading to waste of edible foods at the retail level

·         Lack of education regarding proper packaging, cooling/cold storage, storage of cooked foods and reusing left-over foods, leading to increased discards of foods in the home

For a few ideas on how you can reduce food waste: 

This is a big, complex question that remains to be answered satisfactorily.   One way we might be able to get at some of the answers is to ask instead: Who stands to benefit from maintaining the status quo?

Consider this: High levels of food losses and food waste create continuous demands for

·         more seeds, fertilizers, land, water and other inputs used for production 

·         more packages, packing materials, plastic bags, etc used to package foods

·         more of the transportation (trucks, drivers) used for distribution of food products

·         more food warehouses, cold storage and/or food processing facilities 

·         more traditional food markets and alternative marketing outlets (internet, CSAs etc)

·         higher volumes of sales of foods at wholesale and retail markets, food service companies and restaurants.