Each issue of Pirkka magazine includes tips on how to use leftover food. A National Waste Week was arranged in September for the second time. Following a French model, Finnish stores have started to sell so-called ugly vegetables, that is normal vegetables that deviate from the standard as regards their shape or colour. There are several online organisations, campaigns and blogs aimed at reducing waste. There are daily tweets posted on #foodwaste. The list goes on and on. In other words, food waste has in many ways become a hot topic of discussion in Finland.
Agrifood Research Finland (MTT) estimates that in a Finnish food supply chain, food loss is around 62–86 kilogrammes per person per year. That figure includes the food industry, the retail sector and preparing food at home and in restaurants. About half of the amount of food loss is generated by households and food services. Each Finn throws away 23 kilogrammes of food in a year[i]. These figures feed the continuation of the discussion on waste, and above all, reasoning on where the waste is generated and how it can be reduced.
Differences in waste between various continents
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)[ii] considers food loss to be any part of produced food which is not, for any reason, eaten by people, but is spoilt or damaged on a farm, during processing or transportation to a store. In households, stores and restaurants any food thrown away is usually called food waste.
The share of food loss is roughly the same in developing countries and industrialised countries, 30% of produced food, but food loss occurs in different parts of the food supply chain. In developing countries, people eat almost all of the food that reaches them, but food is damaged and spoilt during inefficient transportation and storage.
In industrialised countries, on the other hand, a lot of food is thrown away by households. According to the FAO, a European consumer throws away 95 kilogrammes of food in a year, and an African consumer 6 kilogrammes. There is a clear difference in the amount of produced food. In Europe, around 900 kilogrammes of food is produced per person, whereas the corresponding figure in African countries south of Sahara is 460 kilogrammes.
More efficient food supply chain essential
The amount of food loss and waste must be reduced, and the food supply chain must be more efficient in many respects so that we can feed the growing number of people. It is estimated that, with the current consumption habits and the amount of food loss, we will need 60% more food in 2050[iii]. Part of the global population will achieve a better income level and then also the consumption of animal protein and total calories increases, which in turn increases the need for resources for food production. In terms of numbers, the population will grow the most in the poorest countries.
Currently, there is enough produced food for everyone according to the FAO and WFP (World Food Programme). Food, just like wealth, is divided very unevenly between people. Poverty is the main reason for hunger, not so much the lack of food. Many people do not have land on which to grow food or money to buy it. Therefore, feeding humanity is related to food waste, but it is an even more complex challenge than the latter.
Food production takes up a great deal of resources
Food production has significant effects on the environment. Food production and transport to consumers as well as the preparation of food require a lot of various resources, such as water, fertilizers, feed, land and space, packaging materials, transportation, energy and labour. When food is thrown away without being eaten, these investments go to waste. In Finland, the environmental effects of food production measured as carbon dioxide emissions account for the third largest share after housing and traffic.
Food loss is such a great waste of resources that the EU has set goals to control it. The food supply chain should be more efficient so that by 2020 the amount of food loss is halved. Procedures on how this goal is to be achieved are being planned. Part of the work will be increasing awareness and shaping opinions. The extent of the EU’s role as a controller has not been decided. It is not necessary to start work from scratch, as many EU countries already have very active operations for reducing food waste.
Habits, price and awareness restrain waste
People’s relation to food waste is reflected by their living conditions, values and habits. Usually, we value something in which we have invested a lot of money or effort, or something that is not readily available relative to our needs. During the depression in Finland, from the end of the 1930s to the beginning of the 1950s, all available food was used carefully. People became very accustomed to this habit, and even in a time of abundance, these people find it difficult to throw food away.
This is not the case for younger generations. In a time of abundance, we can choose what we want to eat – or not to eat. In 1966, food accounted for 27% of expenditure in Finnish households, in 1985 the share of food in overall expenditure was 18%, and in 2012 it was only 12%[iv]. For comparison, in Romania the corresponding figure was 44% in 2012. When the amount of money available increases, the relative share of money used on food is reduced[v], and the amount of food loss has been shown to increase.
In other words, the relative share of food expenditure has diminished in the long term in Finland. However, in the past couple of years the absolute price of food has increased even faster than in other EU countries. When the increasing awareness of the environmental effects of food is also considered, I believe that we have a recipe for increasing respect for food, and thus reducing food waste as a result. However, one has to bear in mind the several negative implications of volatile and high food prices home and abroad.
Household food loss under control by daily decisions
I believe that permanent changes in any sector of life require personal awareness, subjective experiences and conscious decision-making. The amount of food waste can be reduced at home by simple methods. For example, it is recommended to check the temperature of a refrigerator and the best temperature for preserving each food item, cool prepared food quickly, freeze any leftover food or food bought in large packages, such as grated cheese, and plan grocery shopping in advance. Prosaically, attention to household and housing skills helps reduce food loss.
Food is wasted in many parts of the food system, and a consumer cannot influence them directly. VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland investigates and develops these other parts of the system by participating in international projects. Together with our partners, we have submitted an application to the EU’s Horizon2020 Programme, where the objective is, for example, to use information technology for monitoring the storage conditions of food products and quality through the food supply chain, sorting waste, and reusing waste as a raw material. Correct packaging is one practical way to protect food as it is transported through logistics and stored all the way home. We cooperate with FAO in relation to this subject.
In the next part of the blog series on food loss, I will look at bio-packaging, that is, using fibre-based materials and bioplastics in order to reduce food waste.
[i] Silvennoinen, K, et al. 2012, Food Waste Volume and Composition in the Finnish Food Chain, MTT.
[ii] FAO 2011, Global food losses and food waste. Extent, causes, and prevention.
[iv] Statistics Finland, Households and consumption expenditure by type of household.
[v] So-called Engel’s law, Engel E. 1857, Die Productions- und Consumtionsverhältnisse des Königreichs Sachsen.