The agricultural and food industry constantly makes an effort to blame consumers for the huge amount of food waste in Western countries. It’s always the consumer who buys an oversupply of food and throws away a lot of it even though it might still be edible.
Yes, there is a lot of truth in these statements. In Western countries and industrialized Asia consumers are wasteful. I won’t deny that.
But if you look at the bigger picture, you will quickly notice that most of the food loss and waste in our society is caused by the industry. Let’s take a look at the numbers of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
As you can see, in all parts of the world most of the food loss and waste happens before the food reaches the consumer. And yes, we can also see that European, North American, and Asian consumers are particularly wasteful compared to people in Africa or Latin America.
Why do we waste food?
Several reasons contribute to higher food waste by consumers in industrialized countries:
- Consumers in industrialized countries have an abundance of food available to them at a cheap price. Food waste doesn’t result in hunger or financial problems.
- Food is often sold pre-portioned in XXL-sized packages which are significantly cheaper than single-serving packages. This is clearly the fault of the food industry and retailers.
- Western consumers have refrigerators and freezers at home so that they tend to go shopping less often and buy more food at once. Constantly, food supplies get forgotten in the back of the freezer or refrigerator and thus they have to be discarded. Societies with limited food storage opportunities tend to shop for fresh food for immediate consumption more often and thus estimate the amount of food needed more accurate.
But why are food waste and loss before the food even reaches the consumer so high? Let’s take a look at the lost or wasted food at different stages for root and tuber crops such as potatoes, carrots, or onions.
And here is the graph for fruit and vegetables:
As you can see, for these crops most of the food loss and waste are not caused by the consumer. The reason why a huge food loss appears at the agricultural level is the grading system for food quality set by the large food retailers. They won’t buy any produce that doesn’t look perfect. Crooked carrots and misshapen potatoes don’t make the way to the consumer. In the best case, they are used as livestock feed. In the worst case, they just get thrown out.
Our food-grading system is ridiculous
You might’ve seen that some supermarkets now carry crooked vegetables. Yes, that is certainly the case. But these vegetables still receive a very good score on the grading sheet of food manufacturers. Instead of the highest grade, these most often score the second-highest grade on the score sheet. Food manufacturers often buy them to produce canned products or other convenient foods because they are obviously cheaper but still of good quality.
Everyone who has ever grown carrots or cucumbers himself will know how ugly they can look. These crooked vegetables, which might even have holes in the case of carrots, are not suitable for the mass production of food with machines. For an automated industrial process, you need vegetables and fruits that are very similar in shape. You cannot cut beautiful French fries from uneven potatoes.
Most consumers will always prefer more beautiful looking vegetables in the supermarket. It doesn’t make sense for the retailers to stock up on ugly produce. This stuff will just get thrown out after it wilts on the supermarket shelf. In the end, it’s the retailer then who makes the financial loss rather than the producer.
For producers, the only way to minimize their financial loss caused by ugly produce is to plant crops that produce very even and fast-growing fruits and vegetables. Taste is no priority. A consumer doesn’t taste the apples in the supermarket. Most just buy the most perfect and beautiful looking ones. Retailers don’t pay extra for tasty produce. They pay extra for good looks because that is what sells.
Why the industry adores unripe produce
Most produce is harvested before it has fully ripened because fully ripened produce is prone to be damaged in the post-harvest and processing stage. As you can see from the graphs, this is a major problem in developing countries. They often have a very warm and humid climate so that crops are harvested in a riper and more fragile stage than in industrialized countries. If the fruits or vegetables get damaged during harvest or transport they have to be discarded.
We also need to take into consideration that all produce in our supermarkets today has been processed. There is no unprocessed food on the shelves. It can take a few days after harvesting until a tomato or apple reaches the consumer. That is too long. Especially for ripe tomatoes. They would be rotten until they reach the consumer.
Unripe tomatoes, on the other hand, are very firm and thus easy to transport. They can keep for a very long time. Food companies spray the green and unripe tomatoes with ethylene which is a gas that will speed up their ripening process so that they turn red. These tomatoes can then be sold to the consumer. Needless to say, unripe tomatoes are beautiful but tasteless.
The root problem of food waste and loss in North America
Let’s take a look at a white paper published by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation in Canada about food loss in North America. Just like the FAO, they claim the primary reasons for food loss and waste across the food supply chain are:
- overproduction by processors, wholesalers, and retailers
- product damage
- lack of refrigeration during transport and storage
- rigid food-grading specifications
- varying customer demand and market fluctuations
As I just told you, we produce a huge oversupply of food in the industrialized countries even though we waste a ton of it because of ridiculous food-grading specifications. Of course, for the industry, these rigid grading specifications are immensely important because a machine is going to have a tough time peeling crooked potatoes or carrots.
However, the white paper by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation includes a very nice pyramid of the food recovery hierarchy. The most impactful and preferrable way to reduce food waste and loss is a reduction of the oversupply. This also has the largest impact on greenhouse gas reduction.
From the food loss and waste in North America, an extra 260 million people in this world could be fed. But not all of our food oversupply gets lost or wasted. Especially the EU is a large exporter of food to Africa.
Where does all the excess food end up?
Shameless as we Europeans are, we flood the African market with subsidized milk products and alcohol. The EU is the world’s biggest milk producer. In 2018, the EU produced 145 million tons of milk. 12 % of that was exported in 2019. 12 years earlier, in 2007, only about 6 % of EU milk was exported.
The reason why that number has doubled is simple. The domestic demand for dairy in the EU has been stagnating for years. We just can’t consume any more dairy. There’s huge overconsumption of dairy in Germany thanks to government propaganda paid for by the dairy industry. Now it would be a good time to think about how we can reduce dairy production.
But that is not happening. Now the EU manufacturers conquer the world market with milk powders. And as cunning as the dairy industry is, it has found a way to outcompete local African producers. There are two reasons why EU dairy products are so much cheaper than local African milk:
- The EU heavily subsidizes farmers and the dairy industry.
- A lot of European exports are no “real” milk. It’s a fat-free skim milk powder to which palm oil is added which is significantly cheaper than milk fat. 75 % of the EU exports of milk powder to West Africa are so-called “fat-filled mixtures”.
It’s no wonder that locally produced whole milk cannot compete with a “fake” European product. Most consumers in Africa are poor and have to buy the cheapest milk. Also, I doubt that the average consumer is aware of the difference between whole milk powder and a fat-filled mixture. I bet a lot of Western consumers would fall for that trick too.
Until today, the European Commission claims that its domestic subsidies have no dumping effect. However, many European food exports are sold at a price lower than the cost of production.
Of course, I won’t deny that the consumers are the biggest profiteers of this oversupply. The food here in Europe is insanely cheap thanks to our governments. But we should really ask ourselves if the price we have to pay for this massive overproduction will not one day immensely outnumber our short-term gains.
The first step reducing food waste and loss is to massively cut-down on our overproduction. We cannot save every farmer, every food manufacturer, and every job in the industry. We need to set a limit and we need to stop the practice of dumping food on developing markets. The consumer who throws out a rotten carrot is not the root of the problem as the industry wants you to believe.