Half of the world’s food goes to waste

This stunning report out of the UK points the fingers at all groups along the food chain. While consumers throw away a lot of food, stores also refuse to purchase food unless it has a certain look.

Unfortunately for everyone, refusing food because it has the wrong appearance has led to new variations of food that taste no better than the old products. In France it’s now common to see coeur de boeuf (I think these are “beefstake” in the US) tomatoes in the normal grocery stores. They have the “ugly” look that everyone associates with the tasty tomatoes that we find in the country during the summer, but in fact, they’re as tasteless as the other tomatoes in the big city stores.

food produce

Produce Market via Shutterstock.

Last summer I spent a week cycling in the apricot region of France (or at least, the best apricot region) and I would pass through farms that were full of harvested trees, but there were still plenty of apricots in the trees. They just didn’t look good enough for buyers. (Some people caught on and I did notice some people collecting the abandoned fruit in the early morning when few people other than older cyclists are out.)

The point is, people want good products and many have been falling for the “ugly” tomatoes, in hopes of having a good product. At the same time, there are plenty more shoppers who want every zucchini and peach to look exactly the same. Part of that “look” that shoppers want involves maintaining the appearance after shipping.

It’s a tough challenge, but someone will eventually figure this out, or at least how to minimize the waste. NBC News:

The world produces about four billion metric tonnes of food a year but up 2 billion tonnes is never eaten, the global study by the London-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers said.

The organisation lays the blame at every step of the food chain, from farming practices to consumers.

It says retailers reject millions of tonnes of crops because of the physical appearance of fruit and vegetables, fearing shoppers will not buy them unless they look perfect.

I’ve mentioned this group before, but there’s a fantastic organization here in France that helps promote small farmers and their products, Le Petit Producteur. The products are not cheap, but the quality is high, almost as high as you get out in the country where farmers operate. The produce isn’t always the most beautiful – though it’s still attractive – but the taste is far superior than what you typically find in the city.

While on vacation with friends last summer, my 3 year old goddaughter and her twin sister couldn’t stop eating the local fruits and vegetables that we bought at the farmers market. None of it had the shiny, perfect look that you find in Paris markets but the taste was unbeatable. Our friends were amazed with how much the girls were eating, since at home, they hardly touched the same products because they had no taste.

Will the next generation of farmers find a way to bring back taste, rather than look and ability to be transported? That could go a long way towards solving this food problem.

An American in Paris, France. BA in History & Political Science from Ohio State. Provided consulting services to US software startups, launching new business overseas that have both IPO’d and sold to well-known global software companies. Currently launching a new cloud-based startup. Full bio here.

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13 Responses to “Half of the world’s food goes to waste”

  1. karmanot says:

    I suppose it can’t be avoided, but the avalanche of large advertizing is very distracting. It’s like watching the Rachel Maddow show—two minutes on three minutes off.

  2. Randy says:

    why not just charge a premium for perfect looking food? That way, we poor people who understand taste can get decent food subsidized by the idiots who don’t know any better?

  3. Asterix says:

    I suspect that this is a very large source of wasted food. Much of it could probably be processed into food for livestock or composted, but there’s generally no infrastructure to do this and a 20-seat restaurant just doesn’t have an option other than to bin the uneaten food.

    I wonder if a restaurant could operate on the basis of “we adjust the portion size to your appetite and bill accordingly”. It would be hated by the operators because that means that the kitchen staff could not prepare a “standard” plate–and a restaurant works by producing food assembly-line style. Instead, you order the “Grand Slam” breakfast and are presented with twice as much food as any human should eat. But then, humans are quite used to being treated assembly-line style–I suspect that the experts and time and motion studies are taught to treat them that way.

    I don’t have the answer for this one, just observations.

  4. draftmama says:

    We grow all of our own produce – its frozen, dried or root cellared. Anything that goes bad (some root cellar stuff doesn’t make it through the winter) either goes to the chicks or the compost, which is basically the same thing. We haven’t purchased any vegetables since we put in a large garden 7 years ago. annd some of our stuff does indeed look a bit funky, but tasty as all get out and no chemicals. Would never give it up.

  5. Tatts says:

    Most of the world doesn’t have access to shiny, perfect apples and tomatoes. You can’t blame the consumers in the U.S. and a few other first-world countries for waste on such a massive scale (if it is really that large). The vast majority of the world lives barely above a subsistence level and eats whatever they can get.

    It’s not the buying habits of 1/6 or 1/4 of the world’s population that are the biggest contributor to this waste. Most of it is probably the 5 billion or so people who have no means to store food properly and safely (away from bugs and rodents, in controlled temps that retard spoilage, etc.). Blaming first-world consumers is just a distraction from the real issues.

  6. caphillprof says:

    I’m bothered by the notion that food tastes better in the country side than in the city. I fear this is an issue of psychology rather than the quality of the food at either location.

    A lot of our health and social trends go counter to the economic use of food. Among them, the preference for fresh rather than frozen or canned. The bad looking apples become apple sauce or hidden in pies; the bad looking tomatoes end up as tomato sauce, tomato paste or pasta sauce. But we’ve spent decades moving away from the efficient use of food.

    [I note our Old Testament Christians are so busy with rape and gay marriage that they have no time to send out the widows and orphans to glean the fields.]

    In the past we could pass off bad looking produce by labeling it “organic” and raising the price. But now we have to know that it is truly organic for fear of chemicals, which we breathe in the air and drink in our water without as much complaint.

    Composting is a valuable process, else we end up with soil depletion. If there is waste it is the failure of urban, suburban and even rural communities from composting unused part of fruits and vegetables. My grandmother’s kitchen scraps were never wasted as they went to the chickens or to the dogs. In urban/suburban settings we lack the chickens or the dogs, but we still could compost. If we are not composting, then we are really just in a slash and burn subsistence agriculture. When the soils are gone, the food will be too.

    And finally, you really are whistling Dixie, if you expect the over-educated, over-paid and under worked precious families in my neighborhood, with their $1,000 baby carriage, their fancy kitchens with the commercial stoves and all the copper pots ever created but who carry in all their meals and cannot make coffee at home even in a six-foot snow storm but must go blocks to the closest Starbuck, to start buying the bad looking produce. Really? You really think they’ll opt for the bad?

  7. malibujd44 says:

    I work as a food server at many of the top country clubs in Los Angeles…I cry after some of my shifts knowing I could have fed 50 families with just the food I threw away after one of my 8 hour shifts. Whole turkeys, steaks, cakes, bread and all those vegetables…it is just sick.

  8. BeccaM says:

    Zachary’s point below is well-taken. My brother worked in a grocery store produce section as an assistant manager for a couple years, and he said most of the food thrown out in his section was because it was going rotten.

    (Now, I feel compelled to add something here which some folks may have encountered: Ever notice those water sprayers that come on every few minutes or so and which soak the store-displayed produce? I’ve been told they do two things. One is they put the aroma of fresh vegetables into the air, encouraging you to buy more. And the other is they increase the rate of rot. Better to buy dry produce, but if it isn’t possible, always remember to dry off those veggies thoroughly before storing them in your fridge. The extra moisture will also rot your other refrigerated veggies, too.)

    Another factor is portion. My wife and I could get by just fine with a half pound of carrots. Or half a thing of celery. Or a small cauliflower. Or just a few pounds of potatoes. Unfortunately, there’s little or no cost benefit to buying less. In the case of potatoes, for instance, buying a half dozen loose baking potatoes can often cost more than a five pound bag. And then a ten pound bag is often just a dollar or two more. As for the other items, ever see much variation in the size of what’s being offered? In fact, nowadays it seems like fruit and vegetables are becoming more and more uniform in size — and it’s not smaller either.

    So for us, more often than not, we end up throwing out (well, composting) about 1/3 of most of the produce we buy — mainly because it’s not economical to buy the portion sizes that would best suit just the two of us.

  9. Naja pallida says:

    Your in-depth analysis and weighing of the facts is truly astounding.

  10. Naja pallida says:

    I’ve run into that, with grocery stores not being willing to give away expired/leftover food, that is still perfectly edible, even to animal shelters, claiming liability reasons.

  11. I may have to eat these words, but this report just doesn’t pass the smell test. First thing I noticed was that all the losses were described as “waste”. That’s an unreasonable claim.

    From another report I dug out from 2011:

    2.1 Definition of Food Losses and Food Waste

    Food losses refer to the decrease in edible food mass throughout the part of the supply chain that specifically leads to edible food for human consumption. Food losses take place at production, postharvest and processing stages in the food supply chain (Parfitt et al., 2010). Food losses occuring at the end of the food chain (retail and final consumption) are rather called “food waste”, which relates to retailers’ and consumers’ behavior. (Parfitt et al., 2010).

    “Food” waste or loss is measured only for products that are directed to human consumption, excluding feed and parts of products which are not edible. Per definition, food losses or waste are the masses of food lost or wasted in the part of food chains leading to “edible products going to human consumption”. Therefore food that was originally meant to human consumption but which fortuity gets out the human food chain is considered as food loss or waste even if it is then directed to a non-food use (feed, bioenergy…). This approach distinguishes “planned” non-food uses to “unplanned” non-food uses, which are hereby accounted under losses.”


    Notice that if a farmer has grown a field of pumpkins and ships out only 1/2 of them, when he turns in the cows to eat the rest that consumption is counted as “waste”. There are some real problems with definitions!

    How do they quantify these things?

    “How much food is lost and wasted in the world today and how can we prevent food losses? Those are questions impossible to give precise answers to, and there is not much ongoing research in the area. This is quite surprising as forecasts suggest that food production must increase significantly to meet future global demand. Insufficient attention appears to be paid to current global food supply chain losses, which are probably substantial.”

    IMO in the absence of dedicated research they do a whole lot of guessing. So I’m going to stay skeptical for a while on this one.

  12. guest1 says:

    Ive worked in a grocery store, we throw out bad looking food because IT IS going bad, not simply its looks. suppliers send bad food on purpose in hopes we accept it. We also throw away tons of food because it is partly opened, returned, or past expiration but still edible.

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