By Sunita Pandey and Eric Jhon Cruz
Approximately one-third of all food produced globally for human consumption is either lost or wasted, leading not only to food insecurity but also the loss of resources used to create that food (i.e. water, land, energy, labor and capital), and increasing pollution in landfill.
Everyone is aware of the term “food waste”, but what is “food loss”? According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, it means any kind of loss in quantity or quality of food along the supply chain before it reaches consumers; this typically covers production, transportation and storage of food.
Current estimates indicate that approximately 28 percent of the world’s agricultural land area is used to produce food that is never consumed by humans (FAO, 2013). With just 10 more years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, we must address this issue as it plays a critical role in ending hunger, food security, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agricultural practices.
Though losses occur at each stage of the supply chain from production to consumer level, understanding exactly where this loss occurs is crucial to effectively improving our food systems.
The data on food loss suggests that efforts should be focused around the farm, notably on production, harvesting, transportation and storage. But how we can do that? Efforts to reduce food losses in these stages require technology, resources, skills and knowledge of the food chain actors.
Let’s start with production. Crops are one of the essential components of the human diet, however, crop production competes with 30,000 species of weeds, 10,000 species of insects, 3,000 species of nematodes, and thousands of fungi, bacteria, and viruses which in turn cause more than 50,000 diseases.
Inadequate plant nutrition, poor quality seed, insect and disease damage, water stress and poor harvest techniques are all elements that play a major role in reducing food loss during production. In developing countries where producers are unable to invest in these elements, cooperation and interventions from governments, as well as the private sector, is required to support them.
For example, low interest loans, input and machinery subsidies, infrastructure development, and training and information on new technologies are some of the areas that producers need help with. Availability of quality inputs is another area that needs major attention and work, especially by government organizations through regulations that can help mobilize the private sector in this area.
The essential role of crop protection inputs in minimizing food loss
Crop protection plays an essential role in minimizing the damage caused by pests and diseases. It involves the use of different control measures such as chemical, biological, physical, and cultural controls, among others, in an approach called Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
Pesticides are one of the major crop protection tools being used by farmers – as part of an IPM strategy – to protect crops from pests and diseases. Without pesticides, food production would significantly drop, and the resulting food loss will affect food prices.
Post-harvest loss is another stage in the supply chain that incurs enormous food losses. Almost half of all fruits and vegetables produced are lost as a result of mechanical injury and decay between harvesting and the market, while rodents, insects and pathogens are responsible for losses in food grains, especially during storage. Improving infrastructures, transport and storage systems, and processing facilities, mitigates food loss at these stages.
Post-harvest use of pesticides can also ensure the quality and quantity of produce during storage, by preventing mycotoxins and guaranteeing an adequate supply. This in turn contributes to the affordability of food, potentially affecting overall population health through food choices or consumption behavior.
The infographic below shows the critical stages in the food chain that require attention to reduce food loss. It is important to look every step across the chain and to see how they are connected, rather than analyzing each step in isolation.
Reducing food loss increases the quantity of food available, preserves nutrients, lessens food contamination, reduces unnecessary resource use, and increases profits for food value chain actors. By addressing these issues, many developing countries will also be able to improve their food security.
Food Loss and Food Waste Checklists
Here are some checklists across the value chain of measures that producers and consumers can take to protect and preserve our food.
Minimizing food loss:
- An effective crop protection system is necessary; various control measures can be used depending on specific scenarios.
- When using pesticides only use registered products and follow the label recommendations to ensure a safe and effective chemical control for pests and diseases.
- Upon harvest, agricultural produce should be transported as fast as practically possible to maintain quality.
- During transport, use appropriate containers such as plastic crates instead of plastic sacks to minimize damage to food.
- If storage is necessary, the appropriate storage conditions should be met.
- If there is an oversupply and the market is already saturated, excess produce can be processed into high value products, or donated to food banks or food drives. This saves the food from being discarded.
Minimizing food waste while shopping:
- Don’t overbuy: buy only what you need.
- When buying in bulk, be aware that some food has a shorter shelf-life so you should only buy what you can consume before the expiration date.
- Buy “ugly” fruits and vegetables or those that have physical imperfections, but are not damaged or rotten. They are as safe and as nutritious as “normal” fruits and vegetables.
- Learn about food product dating – e.g. expiry date, best before date, use by – to reduce wasting food that is still good for consumption.
When preparing or consuming your food you can also follow these additional steps:
- Avoid the use of food solely for aesthetic purposes, such as food carvings being used as plate decorations.
- Prepare or order only what you can consume; in case you over order when dining out, ask for a take-away box instead of leaving leftovers to be discarded.
Do not forget that you too can play a part in spreading the message by teaching others how their food is grown, and how to reduce food waste. This will help to increase consumer appreciation of how food arrives on our tables and how communities and individual households can stop wasting this precious resource.
Sunita Pandey is a Plant Protection Officer, working at the Plant Quarantine and Pesticide Management Centre under the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development, Nepal. She is waiting for an official graduation from a PhD programme at Charles Sturt University, Australia. Her PhD research was on “Conservation biological control of insect pest of brassica crop”.
Eric Jhon D. Cruz is an agricultural chemist and an MS Environmental Science student. He is a University Researcher and Head of the Pesticide Management Division at the National Crop Protection Center – University of the Philippines Los Baños. His interests include pesticide residues, food security, and risk communication. He is one of the IUPAC N-GAGE (Next Generation Agricultural Innovator) Champions who received seed funding for his project idea.
Both Sunita and Eric are ambassadors for the NextGen Plant Science Network, a global community of early career professionals and students in plant science, supported by CropLife International.