Why 52% of fresh food produce is wasted and how can we change our food system

Why 52% of fresh food produce is wasted and how can we change our food system

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is on a rampage to expose the ridiculous levels of food waste caused by our modern food systems. Hugh’s War on Waste programme on BBC tells the story of a Norfolk veg farmers who were forced to discard 40% of their harvest because they were too long, too short or just wonky which equates to approximately 20 tonnes of parsnips each week.

The percentage of food going to waste has been steadily increasing over the last 40 years and is now reaching ludicrous proportions. This is clearly unsustainable and begs the question ‘what can we do to reverse this trend?’

Our current food waste numbers

It’s estimated that around 24% of fresh produce is wasted before it reaches the supermarkets, 9% is binned by the supermarkets and another 19% is tossed before it reaches our forks resulting in less than half  getting into our bellies.*

Food Waste Stats

The diagram above shows that the largest proportion of waste (24%) comes from farmers growing more than the supermarkets buy.  They do this for two reasons;

  1. the supermarket sales model is based on visual merchandising which means that they only want cosmetically beautiful food forcing the farmer to cull anything that isn’t picture book perfect, and
  2. the supermarket supply chain requires food to be in transit and sit on shelves for a long time, so even the smallest blemishes need to be eliminated in case they spread over time and betray the lack of freshness of the whole batch.

The remaining part of supply chain waste (9%) comes from food that is left on the shelf.  This is the result of merchandising psychology.  No one wants to buy from a shelf that is 90% depleted because they know that whatever is left is the worst of the bunch.

So then what about the 19% that is discarded by the customer?  When you analyse it a lot of the waste here is due to shopping habits.  Most shoppers have a vague idea of what they are going to make with their ingredients but because the unit sizes that food is sold in rarely matches the recipe requirements, they typically buy more than they need (especially when there is an irresistable 2 for 1 deal).

That’s extreme!  But it doesn’t have to be that way. there’s plenty of room for improvement and the problem can be addressed from two angles:. redistribution and reduction.

Two approaches to solve food waste

1. Less food waste by redistribution

On the redistribution front it’s all about taking the food that usually goes to landfill and redirecting it to fill a need.  For example any food that we have left over after a packing day at Ooooby is sent to the City Mission where it’s turned into meals for disadvantaged members of our society.  In the case of standard food retailers where the produce may have been sitting on the shelves for too long to send to people, then it could be made available for livestock feed.  One of my favourite examples of this is the pig idea by the food waste savvy folks at Feedback. There is no doubt that our food waste stream is better utilised by cycling it back into the food system.


2. Produce less

On the reduction front it’s all about preventing over production of food in rucola-young-argula-sproutus_HRthe first place.  A great way to achieve this is by pulling produce to market instead of pushing it to market.  You see, todays dominant food systems are based on the premise that supply drives demand. The idea is that you push a bunch of food to market and customers will snap up the best and leave the rest.  

The problem with this is that you typically need more supply than demand.

Case results 

We have discovered with the Ooooby model that customers are more tolerable of cosmetically imperfect food when they are not selecting the items themselves from a display of picture perfect morsels, and that mildly blemished food is still only mildly blemished when it arrives at the customer’s doorstep because because the supply chain is so short and quick.

As a result the waste generated between the farm and the Ooooby customer is more like 3% as compared to 33%. Naturally this is only one part of what needs to be a multifaceted approach but it’s certainly a good place to start.

Be a part of the solution and buy your fresh produce through Ooooby.org

We’re always keen on hearing more ideas and thought about how to minimise food waste. Leave a comment!