Where do we lose fresh produce in the supply chain the most?

How much food is lost and wasted in the world today and how can we prevent food losses?

Those are questions impossible to give precise answers to, and there is not much ongoing research in the area. This is quite surprising as forecasts suggest that food production must increase significantly to meet future global demand. Insufficient attention appears to be paid to the current global food supply chain (FSC) losses, which are probably substantial, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Food loss and waste (FLW) is no longer a negligible nuisance, it has become a sizeable and growing problem in the context of a rapidly increasing population with food and energy needs; environmental degradation, climate change, fluctuating prices, and production pressures.

The reasons for food loss and waste throughout supply chains are varied and occur across the supply chain from production to consumption, including;

  • Shortage of access to data on production
  • Price
  • Requirements
  • Storage facilities
  • Logistic issues
  • Local transportation
  • Storage
  • Last-minute order cancellation
  • Improper planning, production and distribution
  • Quality requirements
  • Rate fluctuations
  • “Natural Overproduction” due to favourable growing conditions

Food Loss and Waste definition

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the definitions of food loss and waste reads as follows:

“Food loss is the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by food suppliers in the chain, excluding retail, food service providers and consumers.” 

“Food waste is the decrease in the quantity or quality of food resulting from decisions and actions by retailers, food services and consumers.”

Food losses are usually the unintended results of technical and management limitations in agricultural production processes, infrastructure, storage, transport, packaging, and/or marketing while food waste refers to food that is of good quality and fit for consumption but does not get consumed because it is discarded either before or after it is left to spoil.

Food waste typically, but not exclusively, takes place at the retail and consumption stages in the food value chain. It is usually the result of negligence or a conscious decision to throw food away.

Losses can also be classified in terms of their utilisation/disposal which includes the yield gap between what farmers are actually producing/harvesting and what was possible if they were to use optimal management practices.

Losses depend on several factors such as environmental conditions, method, and duration of storage, methods of processing, and the inherent features of the different nodes along the value chain in a given environment.

FLW across Low & High-income Countries

Food loss and waste occur at every stage along FSCs, however, globally there is a distinctive difference in lost and wasted food that occurs between low and high-income countries. Contrary to low-income countries that show more food loss concentrations within the beginning of the supply chain (grower/harvest level) due to inefficient storage capabilities and lack of adequate cooling systems, bad infrastructure, and transport – in direct comparison, high-income countries generate more food waste within the latter part of the supply chain (retail, consumer level).

Here, the waste can result from various sources including retail (supermarkets & grocery stores) rejection of the food produced due to a lack of quality, infestations such as mould, etc., processing towards a product that reduced features of the initial resource, inadequate temperature conditions in warehouses or supermarkets, inadequate handling, overordering and subsequent cancellation, communication issues between involved parties, or lack of awareness by consumers, discarding products to soon.

How can we reduce FLWs?

While there could and should be food saving practices implemented across all aspects of the food supply chain, low-income countries could see a greater yield each year if they could increase their education and handling practices across farming, processing & storage stages of the supply chain to help in reducing food losses.

High-income countries like the United States, on the other hand, could see a greater yield each year if retailers could automate their ordering processes to reduce the likelihood of having an oversupply. While oversupplies can be handled with dedicated specials and sales on specific fresh produce items this simply passes the buck to the consumer, as they may take advantage of “2-for-1” specials yet they have no practical need for the amount of food they end up with, resulting in edible food turning into food scraps.

Educating consumers to simply purchase what they need can see a great food waste reduction. Also, educating consumers in the best ways to store specific fruits and vegetables for optimal shelf-life can help reduce unnecessary waste and carbon dioxide emissions.

No matter where you operate within the food supply chain, we can all play our part to be more purposeful in our actions and take proactive measures to ensure we aren’t creating more loss & waste than necessary. To learn more about food loss & waste, check out PostHarvest’s free online courses.

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