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  • Writer's pictureElena Catalina Lungu

Food Waste: Influences, Trends, and Movements

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Photo by simon peel on Unsplash

Unsustainable consumption and production patterns are one of the root causes of the triple planetary crises of pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change we are facing. Approximately one-third of all food produced worldwide is wasted in its early stages or at a consumer level. On the one hand, food waste at a production level refers to food lost throughout different stages of the production chain, such as harvesting, transporting, storage, processing, distribution, or retail. According to the United Nations (UN) data, 13.3% of food resources get lost between harvesting and retail. On the other hand, food waste at a consumer level consists of the food thrown away in households or even restaurants and accounts for 17% of the food available to consumers. The yearly loss of about 1.3 billion tons of food costs the global economy over $1 trillion and accounts for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. More alarmingly, compared to the average person's annual consumption of roughly 675kg, we could feed an additional 2 billion people per year with the quantity of food we squander. Hence, tackling food waste has been made a priority. It is one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), under the Responsible Consumption and Production goal, which provided a 10-year framework that helped 83 countries and the European Union to implement a total of 700 policies and activities by 2020.

Although governments are frequently major players in sustainable food management, corporations and consumers also play a significant role. There are a few unexpected reasons why food waste occurs. When looking at customer behaviour, a major influential factor has been the COVID-19 pandemic and the strict lockdowns occurring worldwide. Many elements influence the effect of COVID-19 on the amount of food wasted, such as various socio-demographic, socio-economic, behavioural, psychological, situational, and cultural factors. These factors include time management, improving cooking skills, planning, and stocking. Therefore, there is clear evidence that each nation experienced a different COVID-19 effect on consumer behaviour regarding food waste.

Panic purchasing, home cooking, utilising leftovers, online shopping, stockpiling, and food delivery services were more prevalent during the COVID-19 lockdowns than before the pandemic. Additionally, fewer individuals went out to eat, leading to increased home cooking. On the one hand, looking at Western Societies, the COVID-19 pandemic enhanced irresponsible consumer behaviour, such as compulsive buying and acquiring bulk quantities. On the other hand, people have become more aware of their consumption habits by spending more time at home. Increased awareness positively impacted food waste at a consumer level and motivated consumers to dedicate more time to their food and waste habits. Studies attribute the decreased food waste in some regions to many factors. These factors include better shopping planning, such as shopping lists, consumption of long-lasting goods, decreased impulse purchases; more meal preparation and fewer leftovers; better understanding of what's in stock; attention to expiration dates, and increased cooking abilities.

Although individuals have mainly resumed their regular schedules, the lockdowns forced people to change their lifestyles and become more conscious consumers. Researchers predict that people's waste-prevention behaviours will be more reasonable in the future and will result in less food waste than they did before the epidemic. However, despite the increased awareness, the amount of food wasted at a consumer level is still incredibly large and highly environmentally damaging. The growing concern of food waste was discussed at the COP27. Led by big corporations, international organisations, and governments, they pledged and dedicated more resources to offer better and more accessible consumer alternatives and incentives.

Summary of changes during the COVID-19 pandemic and the expected behaviours in the post-COVID-19 world. (Iranmanesh et al., 2022)

Regarding the causes of food waste, on a consumer and retail level, it is understandable that vast servings of food at restaurants go unfinished or that poor food management in busy households results in higher waste. Nevertheless, consumer preferences, food safety laws, and agricultural methods are other less obvious sources of food waste. Notably, it has been proven that wealthy and industrialised nations waste the most, frequently impacting food loss and waste, making sustainable food management systems needed even more. In order to alter the amount of food wasted, the implementation of many movements and initiatives occurs at both legal and social levels worldwide at an institutional level. The "123 Pledge" was launched at the COP27 to speed up efforts to eliminate food loss and waste worldwide. The new Pledge calls on businesses, governments, chefs, and other significant players in the food system to make firm commitments to take specific actions, including minimising food loss and waste in their action plans for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Major players such as the Government of The Netherlands, Unilever, Rabobank, WWF, UNEP, and the World Rescue Institute made pledges to support the movement and contribute by implementing more challenges, measures, initiatives, and campaigns at a European and Global level.

Food waste is a global concern with high economic, social, and environmental impacts. A significant trend in combating global food waste in companies is transitioning from a linear to a circular economy. Although this transition and prioritisation of a circular economy have been present for years in developed countries, the movement is finally reaching companies in developing countries. The increased action in reducing waste at a production level is a step forward for the global transition to more sustainable and environmentally friendly production practices. Whether it comes from the excessive use of natural resources or unsold produce, food waste can happen at every level, and allocating more resources to identify where to improve and optimise operations is needed. Studies proved that lower waste in the production stages increases profits for companies. The additional financial incentive pushes companies to invest more in reducing waste by improving their logistics, creating new products from the waste materials, reallocating resources, and aiming for a circular economy within their operations.

One of the trending initiatives in preventing food waste at the governmental, industrial, and consumer level is the implementation of food waste management systems. Food waste management entails several crucial tasks for disposing of food waste. It also covers the collection, handling, prevention, recovery, transportation, and recycling of trash while employing many control measures. Composting, landfills, and anaerobic digestion of produced wastes are a few disposal methods used in the business and residential sectors. Moreover, food waste management is widely used worldwide in producing biofuel, fertilisers, animal feed, and power. The global market is also being stimulated by technological developments, including automated garbage collection, cutting-edge sensor-based technologies, and enzyme-based food management approaches. Another key growth-inducing element aside from this is the rising use of biomass waste for energy production. The latest reports anticipate that the market for food waste management will also grow in the coming years due to the developing industrialisation trend and the rising need for organic waste to manufacture fertilisers and animal feeds. Reports expect a CARG of 6.2% growth during 2022-2027 for the food waste management market. Producers, consumers, and governments are embracing the development and implementation of these systems as they lead to an economic model that maximises sustainability while increasing profits.

The world needs more sustainable production models that facilitate a shift from a linear economy to a climate-neutral economy, such as a circular or transformative bioeconomy. Companies are using new materials, and 2022 is registering a rise in packaging meant to reduce food waste. Manufacturers worldwide are under tremendous pressure to reduce their food waste and ensure spreading awareness by taking immediate action and implementing initiatives and strategies to address the food waste problem. The current movements and those implemented soon target more influential players and aim to create a systemic change. Food waste is a problem in all stages of a product's life cycle. The new initiatives target reducing and preventing waste from the harvesting stage until the very end, where the product can become energy. A systemic change for such a complex problem requires adjustments and transformation at every level, from policy implementation to changing individual mindsets. Although it is a considerable challenge, countries worldwide are ready to take their next step in preventing food waste.

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