Each year, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) chooses a theme for World Food Day. Thanks to mounting pressure on the global food system from inflation, the pandemic, conflict, extreme weather and waste, this year’s focus is far broader than usual: leave no one behind.
The massive scope of the theme – well over 800 million people go hungry every day – reflects the state of the food crisis in 2022. There have rarely been more serious challenges to food security in the Global South, and it’s seldom been more important to reduce unintentional waste.
It costs more to eat than it did last World Food Day. In some cases, it costs a lot more. Short-term improvements to the food inflation crisis aside, it’s not showing signs of slowing.
Despite widespread hunger and 2021’s high-profile crop failures, though, we’re not facing a global productivity crisis (yet). We’re theoretically growing enough for supply to outstrip demand, so why are so many still struggling to access the right nutrition?
The problem isn’t productivity. It’s loss, which is difficult to control without huge investment. It’s also waste, though – a challenge that we’re far better placed to address.
How much food are we throwing away?
One third of everything grown for human consumption, every year. In economic terms, that’s $1 trillion worth of edible food lost to compost, animal feed, and landfill. In environmental terms, that’s more annual CO2 emissions than India.
Those staggering numbers aren’t lost on policy-makers. The UN wants to end world hunger in the next eight years as part of their ‘Sustainable Development’ initiative. Part of that effort relies on another of their development goals – halving food waste by 2030.
There’s a reason they’re focused on waste. It’s one side of the food-deficit coin that we can start improving immediately on a national, organisational and individual level, and in many cases it’s avoidable. On the other side of the coin, there’s food loss.
Food waste vs. food loss – and where they occur
In order to understand why 10% of the world’s population still aren’t getting enough food (and devise effective food waste management solutions), we need to know why produce goes missing:
- Food waste refers to food that’s either left to spoil or discarded while it’s still edible. There are countless reasons for food waste, but it’s often the result of stock management challenges, misinformation about expiry dates, and, yes, forgetfulness.
- Food loss refers to food that spoils before it reaches someone who can eat it. It’s usually the result of poor storage, transportation or weather-related damage.
The recent spike in extreme weather events has muddied the water slightly, but in broad terms: high-income countries waste food, and lower-income countries lose food. In the case of the latter, poor infrastructure leads to spoilage that results in lower yields, less food, higher prices, and more hunger where it’s already felt most keenly.
Higher-income countries tend to have the more abundant supply, with low prices to match. With that said, it’s not carelessness that leads countries like the UK to discard 9.5 million tonnes of food each year.
The complexity of the food waste challenge
In reality, the challenges are more complex – and increasingly urgent. Stock management is an ongoing challenge for the food service industry, and with recent disruptions like the pandemic and economic downturn, it’s more difficult than ever to predict sales.
There’s also a visibility problem: many know exactly how much food they purchase, but very little about how much money they waste on unused produce. That’s an issue, because the food crisis is increasingly being felt in high-income countries in the form of inflated prices.
What’s behind rising costs?
With food prices increasing around the world, wasting a third of edible produce is no longer a sustainable option (if it ever was). Which brings us back to that initial question – why do many still struggle with food security?
The impact of inflation
Food is subject to inflation, like any other commodity. The IMF describes the current global inflation pressure as “broader and more persistent than anticipated”. As inflation peaks, food prices rise.
Despite their predictions of significant alleviation in the next months and years, food prices remain high – and salaries aren’t keeping up. While the United States saw a recent drop in inflation, the cost of food increased by over 13%. Food banks in the USA are now busier than ever, and demand is beginning to outstrip supply. At the same time, roughly 130 billion meals’ worth of food is lost in America each year.
As low-income countries face extreme weather events that damage yields, they’re reducing their exports to protect domestic supply. The global supply chain is still recovering from the pandemic, to add to the confusion. In other words, it’s never been more important to deploy food waste management solutions that have an immediate impact.
The cost of conflict
Things have improved since the onset of war in Ukraine, but it’s important to understand that this is relative – and that we’re approaching a potentially unstable winter. Some food prices may be back to pre-war levels, but they were incredibly high to begin with. Uncertainty surrounding winter energy prices will only increase costs as production becomes more expensive.
The war will continue to impact prices, and make reducing waste a top priority. In peacetime, Ukraine and Russia export nearly a quarter of the world’s entire wheat supply. Ukraine alone was one of the biggest contributors to the UN’s World Food Programme – which means a safety net for some of the world’s most vulnerable people is under threat.
How reducing kitchen food waste could ease supply chain pressure
If we continue to lose $1 trillion worth of food, labour and energy every year, produce will continue to cost more to compensate, less people will be able to afford it, and it will remain difficult to meet the FAO’s goals.
That’s an incredible simplification of a whole host of market forces and supply chain relationships, but as the experts at Columbia University’s Climate School put it:
“When we throw away [mouldy] strawberries… we’re throwing away all the water used to grow each strawberry. We’re wasting all the energy and fuel used to transport and store them. We’re creating more solid waste for our near-capacity landfills, where they will emit harmful greenhouse gases.”
Food waste’s impact is far further-reaching than just the supermarket shelves, the restaurant menu or the mouldy strawberry. It’s felt across the already-beleaguered supply chain, and it’s felt well beyond the moment we discard it.
Reducing pressure on global food supply
Less waste means more efficient use of resources, which in turn means less expenditure through the supply chain and disposal industries. Researchers at McKinsey found a direct link between supply chain inefficiency and the number of people going hungry, with a lack of access to technology at the root of the issue.
Supply pressures aren’t limited to the Global South. They’re felt in countries like the United States, where despite the hospitality industry’s recovery, there are still erratic shifts in demand as a result of disruption-induced food inflation.
With efficient production and lower delivery expenditure, it’s possible to reduce food prices. Cheaper food means that more people can eat, and a more stable relationship between supply and demand means that food service providers won’t have to contend with an unpredictable market.
If our collective goal is to reduce world hunger, we can begin to take pressure off of the supply chain by reducing waste:
Modern food waste management solutions for a modern crisis
That’s a tall order, though – especially as waste is rarely intentional, and hurts producers and the hospitality industry as much as consumers. There’s the added challenge of food loss: even if we waste less of the food we import from the Global South, the recovered land and harvests could still suffer. It would, however, have a positive impact on the global food supply, and work towards bringing costs back down to earth around the world.
The response to food loss in the Global North could offer some inspiration:
In high-income countries, there’s less food loss, and more food waste. Why? Because we have access to technology that makes storage, transport and protection from spoilage more efficient and effective. As food inflation continues to bite and we focus on leaving fewer people behind, it’s time to do the same for waste. The technology is at our disposal – now, we can apply it.
At Winnow, we’re well aware that the crisis is far larger than a single group of innovators, but we believe in the value of food – and in punching above our weight with the help of scalable technology.
That’s why we’ve set an ambitious goal. We want to save $1 billion worth of food from being wasted. Our AI is scalable enough to support it, and we’ll make a serious dent in food waste in the process.
Our target? Hospitality, where wasted inventory costs businesses $757 million a year – in the UK alone. It could soon cost more: countries like South Korea already penalise individuals and businesses for excessive food waste.
Tackling the food crisis from the kitchen
If there’s no birds-eye view of the food that’s being thrown away in an average day, week, month, or year, it’s impossible to know how well — or poorly — kitchens are managing inventory. That takes effort, though. Keeping track of food coming in is complex enough, but on the way out, too?
Understanding that number is more valuable than simply reducing the amount of food you order. Lean supply chains are adaptable, until they’re too lean. Understand how much you’re throwing out, and you’ll more accurately understand how much you used. With the help of automation and computer vision, we’ve already cut waste in half for multinational organisations.
It’s a first step, but it’s a crucial one. If we’re going meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in under a decade, we’re going to need the help of technology. The food crisis is too big for us to take on without it.