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Food Waste has Environmental Downside

08 April 2013

DENMARK - The production of the food we eat has an impact on the environment. But the food we do not eat also has significant adverse impacts. This is the conclusion of a report from DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture at Aarhus University.

Far too much of the food we produce goes to waste. This is not just a waste of resources – it is also something that has a needless detrimental effect on the environment. It is particularly the consumer who is responsible, but waste is also an issue in other parts of the food chain.

In the EU, the consumption of food and drink is responsible for 20-30 per cent of the overall environmental impact and more than 50 per cent of eutrophication.

The production of an average Danish diet emits 1684 kg CO2-equivalents per person per year, and about 13.5 per cent of this is from the food we waste, primarily in households. By reducing this waste, the burden can be considerably eased.

This is the conclusion of a report, ”Madspild i fødevaresektoren – fra primærproduktion til detailled”, prepared by scientists from Aarhus University for the Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries, which has just been published by DCA – Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture at Aarhus University.

The report focuses on food waste (fish excepted) in the part of the food chain that includes primary food production, the retail sector and commercial kitchens.

"It is important that our food is used to the last morsel. If we throw out food, this creates an unnecessary burden on the environment," say the authors of the report.

Food Waste Defined

In order to overcome the problem of food waste, it is necessary to get a more detailed idea of the extent problem and how it arises. The report from Aarhus University is based on the literature in the area.

On this background, ‘food waste’ was defined as food that is ready to be eaten by humans but instead ends up being thrown out.

When you talk about food waste it typically happens in the end of the production chain after the product has left the farm.

One exception is fruit and vegetables that are ready to be eaten when they leave the primary production. Strawberries in the field that never get picked are an example of this type of food waste.

There is also a ‘hidden food waste’. This is defined as waste of plants or animals, which were planned to be eaten by humans, if they had been handled and used optimally through the whole chain from primary production to retail.

Included in this food waste are animals that die due to illness and animals or parts of animals that are rejected at the slaughterhouse due to a health risk for humans.

Another example is crop loss in the field due to disease.

Food waste should not be confused with by-products, which are the secondary products from food production not suitable for human consumption. An example of this type of product is slaughterhouse waste such as bones and non-sterile blood.

Retail Sector and Households Most Wasteful

Identifying exactly where in the food chain food waste occurs makes it easier to plan remedial actions.

According to the report, food waste from primary production and the processing industry is only a very small percentage of the production, so this is not where the largest improvements can be achieved.

Wastefulness increases when the food reaches commercial kitchens.

There are large variations in the statistical data and the amount wasted also depends on whether the kitchens use fresh or semi-processed ingredients and whether the food consists of fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy products and eggs, or cereal products.

The report estimates that food waste in commercial kitchens is in the order of 9-30 per cent.

In the retail sector, particularly fruit and vegetables suffer the largest losses before reaching the consumer, but bread is also a much wasted food source.

In terms of quantities, food waste amounts to 345 kg for every million kroner worth of food sold in the retail sector.

Although the report does not really cover the part of the food chain beyond retail, it nevertheless specifies that a significant part of the wastefulness occurs at consumers. On average, each Dane throws an estimated 60-65 kg of perfectly good food in the bin each year, corresponding to 15-20 per cent of the food we buy.

Food Waste Unnecessary Burden on Environment

"One of the reasons why it is a good idea to be concerned about food waste is because of the environmental impact associated with food consumption," say the authors of the report.

"The report therefore contains a listing of the carbon footprints of the individual food groups."

Beef is responsible for 28 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions related to production of our diet and is thus the largest culprit.

The impact on climate of beef waste alone is 62 kg CO2 per person per year, which is just as much as the emissions from production of all vegetables eaten per person per year. And the impact of food wasted in households is twice as large as the combined impact of the food waste in the retail sector and the processing industry.

One of the methods that can be used to lessen the environmental impact from food consumption is obviously to reduce food waste.

The report outlines a number of initiatives undertaken in different countries and in different parts of the food chain. An important factor here is that the consumers need to be involved. And information campaigns could be one of the strategies used.

"Food waste in households is largely due to ignorance. Information campaigns are important to make consumers aware of the problem. Many people do not connect food waste with environmental issues. And many people do not believe they have a particular problem with food waste," the scientists write.

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