Reasons for food loss

A big problem in the food supply system is food loss and food waste. In this Step, you will explore the differences between the two terms, and what this means for food sustainability.

What food loss is and how it differs from food waste [1]

FAO proposes a distinction between food losses and food waste: “food losses take place during agricultural production, post-harvest, and processing stages in the food supply chain”, while “food waste occurs at the end of the food chain (distribution, sale and final consumption)” (Figure 1). The former is due mainly to logistical and infrastructural limitations, while the latter is primarily related to behavioural factors [2].

Process diagram of food loss and food waste. Food loss has three stages: 1. production, 2. Post harvest and handling and storage, and 3. Processing and manufacturing. Next in the process, but now under food waste is: 4. Distribution/ retail/ HRI, and 5. Consumption

Figure 1: Commonly accepted distinction between food loss and waste. Source: The Avoidable Crisis of Food Waste © Second Harvest

Both food loss and waste have a huge environmental footprint (video hosted on YouTube). Two main categories can be identified on food loss [3]:

  • Food that is grown but not harvested
  • Food that undergoes loss post-harvest before it reaches consumers/retailers

Reasons for food loss [4]

The on-farm losses mostly originate from uncontrollable or unpredictable causes.

1. Risks of production

Fear of infestations from pests or extreme weather phenomena usually leads farmers to plant more than what they would need to supply. The higher cost of production is overpassed by the security farmers obtain that they will be able to meet their supply contracts without looking for secondary markets [5].

2. Losses from farm incidents

Even with proper planning, a disease outburst may cause further losses to farmers than just the costs of initial inputs. A bad quality grain or produce that does not meet the distributors’ standards may yield harvesting a crop even more costly and wasteful of farm’s equipment and resources. [6].

3. Unfavourable market conditions

Farmers choose to waste their crops when their returns are not breaking even the costs of labour, transportation and packaging. This is more prevalent nowadays that farmers face labour shortages. Less and less people want to be involved in agriculture or they might face strict migration rules [7].

Steps to tackle food loss

Some of the causes of food loss could be prevented if better infrastructure, markets and price mechanisms existed. With minimum but well organised effort there is capacity to reduce surplus food and increase the potential of distribution networks [8]. Here are some ways:

  • During preparation for a new growing season, a successful farming plan requires precision customising the demand for resources and inputs required to achieve a performance closer to the expected yield. Also, good management skills and negotiating power to secure a profitable deal, as early as possible. Professional associations and industry bodies provide overviews of the markets and risks for the production seasons [5].

  • Harvesting stage in crops or stages of maturity for livestock production entail many dangers associated with the marketability of the final plant and animal products. In many developing countries or for farmers with poor infrastructure, harvest or slaughtering takes place too early resulting in sub-optimal yield. Constant monitoring with yield indicators and close compliance to industry standards will ensure homogenous crop yield and consistent quality of animal products [6].

  • Post-harvest losses occur between harvesting and distribution. Proper storage maintains produce while it undergoes cleaning, drying, safety checks or processing. Storage facilities are a critical element that prevents produce from being contaminated while storing it within a protected environment with ventilation-controlled temperature, levels of humidity, and air circulation levels. Another parameter is handling and storage that allow for a safe and undisturbed transport preventing bruising and squashing or spoilage [9].

  • Alternative distribution channels where small farmers and agribusiness can sell their produce directly to consumers in secondary markets with no distinction in weights or looks. These can be local farmers’ markets, restaurants and hotels or charity through programs that bring together farmers, communities and those in need [10].

  • “Wonky” or “imperfect” fruits and vegetables are becoming more and more popular as many retailers and supermarkets contribute to the movement for changing consumers’ perceptions of how healthy and nutritious food should look (video hosted on YouTube) [11]. In Europe, many supermarket chains and retailers have introduced wonky vegetables either in a form of separate product line, as cut salads and pre-made meals, a cheaper basic private label brand, or through imperfect vegetable boxes [12].

Wonky carrot with five ends at different sizes and direction

Figure 2: Wonky veg © Anthony Davison from Pexels
  • Upcycling is a term defining the transformation of any food production residue and by-product that remain unused as food moves along the supply chain into new products of better environmental value [13] [14]. Examples of marketed products that you can find in this additional resource include alternatives to familiar products or even new uses that technology has allowed us to explore. Vegetable-based snacks and cereal bars have ingredients are “rescued”. Innovative refreshment lines that use cocoa fruit pulp or yogurt whey. Finally, organic matter residue is used to create wood-alternative logs, fruit fibre-based clothing and leather.

References can be found under the ‘Downloads’ heading at the bottom of this Step.


Activity

What initiatives are being taken where you live to tackle food loss? Do you know of any additional initiatives taken around the world? What do you think of wonky veg and upcycled foods?

Have a look at the comments from other Learners. If you can relate to a comment someone else has made, why not ‘Like’ it or ‘Reply’?

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This article is from the free online course:

Explore How Farmers Produce Food Sustainably

EIT Food