Race to Zero FOOD Waste – Food Production and Supply Chain Waste

7/8/2021

In the first part of our Race to Zero FOOD Waste blog, we looked at the waste we generate as individuals. If you missed those food waste reduction tips, check them out here.  I’m sure you agree that we can take responsibility for the food waste from our own refrigerators and from our own eating habits. But we’re not the only responsible parties —


In this blog, Race to Zero FOOD Waste Part 2, we are zooming out to look at the waste generated through industrialized agriculture and the produce supply chain. We will consider how our food is grown and transported for modern consumption and how that includes food waste and food loss.

horizontal photo of a bountiful apple orchard. There are two wooden barrels on either side of a wooden ladder.

Image by Lumix2004 from Pixabay

Monocropping has got to go

First, modern agriculture production techniques do have the capacity to improve efficiency and reduce impact. However, there is often a greater focus on efficiency for profit’s sake rather than for any environmental reason.

 

There needs to be a balance between increasing yields (reasonably) and protecting the soil and surrounding plant life. Widespread monocropping, the practice of planting one crop in the same field season after season, has had deleterious effects on soil health and biodiversity. By planting one crop intensively, we get a chain reaction of depleted soil nutrients, which leads to an increased need for fertilizers and pesticides. The pesticides kill bugs indiscriminately leading to reduced biodiversity (e.g. pollinators!). They then get into the water table, carrying these effects downstream.


Moreover, many farmers who engage in monoculture end up relying exclusively on multinational corporations for their hybrid seeds and specific pesticides, further limiting their ability to recover from a difficult year. Currently, “only 9 plant species account for almost two-thirds of total crop production” over huge swaths of land. It sounds like there should be plenty of food for all of us, but then we come to the problem of logistics.

Hazards, food loss, and resiliency  

Planting cash crops like soy, corn, and wheat can be economically beneficial. However, in addition to the issues mentioned above, there are risks. If demand falls, farmers are left with vast fields of food that are no longer economically valuable. Instead of being harvested, these crops are simply plowed into the soil, wasting the energy and labor that already went into growing them, along with any nutritional energy. We saw this happen at the beginning of the pandemic with the sudden closures of restaurants, schools, and cafeterias. Growing large amounts of fad foods can also have this effect when the fad starts to fade.


A greater variety of crops within smaller stake-holder farms can lead to greater economic resilience for farmers and less food waste at the production level.  More localized and varied food production could be a solution to both increase nutritional variety and conserve biodiversity, while reducing potential food waste in the event of an unforeseen hazard.

From farm to fridge

 Given the land requirements for industrial monocropping and the continuous expansion of international trade in primary goods, it’s not surprising that shipping has become an important food waste risk factor in our modern-day food chain.


With a greater distance to travel from centralized farmlands to disparate communities, much of our fresh produce is now selected for its ability to withstand the demands of shipping and maintain a longer shelf-life. Produce intended for supermarkets is picked before it has ripened and then exposed to ethylene gas so that it is the right color by the time it gets to its destination. This changes its aroma, flavor, and even nutritional value as compared to a fruit that has ripened naturally. If you have ever been disappointed by bland vegetables from a big grocery chain, this could be a factor.


Transportation may not be as slow as it once was, but greater distances still require more energy. Depending on where our food originated, it might include fuel for jets and/or trucks; manual labor hours in picking, packing, loading, and unloading; and the energy required for refrigerated transport. And even with all that speed and energy, distributors and supermarkets throw away a percentage of goods before they’re even put on shelves.

 

Vogue-ready vegetables (and fruits)

Our produce is not only selected for its hardiness for the journey from the farm, it is also selected according to beauty standards “that include size, shape, appearance and maturity.” This has led to food being left to rot on farms, food being thrown away at sorting facilities, and more tossed out before it hits shelves. The supermarket became a place for abundant displays, identical waxed fruits, and bright logos. But behind the scenes, increasing visual appeal also increases food waste.

 

When supermarkets overstock produce, by creating a lovely apple pyramid, for example, it convinces more people to buy apples. Psychologically, we are more likely to buy from an overflowing bin. But the reality is that only a portion of those apples will be sold and the rest will be thrown out. Perhaps if overstocking were banned, we would become more accustomed to seeing modestly stocked produce aisles and supermarkets would still sell the same amount of apples.

Fighting food waste in the supply chain

Few places require supermarkets to measure their food waste, but some countries have laws against this particular waste link in the food chain. There are also positive initiatives to take advantage of bruised, “ugly”, or overripe fruit and vegetables. Some produce is separated in sorting facilities and go straight to the production of things like jams and juices. Other initiatives like CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and produce boxes for delivery help link farms directly to consumers. There are also organizations that help rescue food before they go to supermarket dumpsters, supplying community kitchens and food banks.


It seems that in order to fight food waste in the supply chain,  the solution is to shorten the supply chain. As usual with zero waste principles, we start with the first R: Reduce. Do your part (especially if you work along the supply chain!) to support initiatives and policies that:


– Reduce the size of farms and their reliance on monoculture cash crops = more local farms with a variety of foods grown seasonally. Governments should redirect subsidies to local farms and community gardens.


– Reduce the need for pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers.


Reduce the distance that food has to travel from farm to table.


Reduce overstocking in supermarkets = less demand from markets which will lead to less demand for crops and thus farmland. Land conversion for farmland, especially the crops used to feed livestock, is one of the top threats to biodiversity.


– Reduce the perception that food has to look perfect for it to be edible.


Food production and transportation is, and will continue to be, a necessary part of our lives. We need food to survive. But do we need it to be overflowing, beautiful, and flown from halfway across the world? It’s important to rethink our systems and reduce waste in all aspects of our resource use, especially with the resources that societies use on large scales.


If you are part of an organization that works on large-scale projects and are interested in a consultation on moving toward zero waste in your operations, please email us at [email protected] 

 


This article was written by R20W Strategic Development Consultant Hayden Sloan

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