The circular economy is the idea of keeping materials in use for as long as possible in order to eliminate waste. That’s all very well when it comes to wearing preloved clothes or furniture recommerce, but how does the concept apply to the idea of food waste?
On paper the answer is easy – produce only what we need in the right locations. We are a long way off that, so what else? Another answer may lie in an ideal that can be summarised as: what starts on the farm is returned to the farm. In other words, food waste can be harnessed to generate energy or for composting, theoretically closing the loop. Again, the theory is quite a way off the reality.
Of course, in addition to the food waste itself, there’s plenty of non-food waste generated by the food industry in the form of CO2 emissions and packaging.
Food Waste: The Stats
It’s a shocking fact that a third of all food produced globally goes to waste. Put another way, that’s $1 trillion worth of food going to waste annually, or 1.3 billion tonnes. It takes 25% of the world’s fresh water supply and an area the size of China to grow the food that never gets eaten. Less than a quarter of the food wasted in the US, UK and Europe could feed all the hungry people in the world – nearly a billion of them. I hope these stats set the scene.
FAO estimates that by 2050, the world will need to have increased global food production by 60% to feed a population approaching 10 billion people. So isn’t the pressure on food production a big enough issue without the extreme waste? Reduce the waste and reduce the pressure and, at the same time, reduce the food industry’s adverse effects on the planet—sounds obvious. Producing more new stuff means generating more greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming – and with the food system currently accounting for a quarter of all emissions, that’s a huge deal.
So what does this waste look like? It’s more than just what we see as consumers: more than just food on shelves going unsold and then going past its sell by date, or food we’ve bought going off in our fridges and cupboards and being thrown away uneaten. The waste starts earlier in the process. The rejects in the production line. The offcuts. The machine blockages. At the point of production, this has to suggest it’s cheaper for the producer to waste than to prevent the waste. But what can be done?