Food waste is a global epidemic. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) recently published a report on the issue, revealing that of the approximately four billion metric tons of food produced each year, “30-50% (or 1.2-2 billion tonnes)… never reaches a human stomach.” Besides the obvious issue of wasted resources, this also poses a problem as the global population continues to rise. The United Nations predicts that the population will reach 9.5 billion by 2075—an increase of approximately three billion from today’s figure. With 870 million people currently battling starvation on a daily basis (Source: State of Food Insecurity in the World, FAO, 2012), programs must be developed to ensure that the number doesn’t increase as the population grows.

So why exactly is half of the food produced each year being thrown away? According to IMechE, the primary causes are poor harvesting practices, storage and transportation inefficiencies, and market and consumer misuse. These causes vary between various population groups, specifically:

Third World and Developing Nations (Africa, China). In these societies, “wastage tends to occur primarily at the farmer-producer end of the supply chain.” Due to less developed methods of harvest and transport, produce is damaged or goes bad before it can be sold.

Developed Nations (Europe, United States). Food waste tends to occur at the retail and/or consumer level in these societies. Marketing and appearance is more important to this demographic, so produce that does not meet certain aesthetic standards is thrown away, even when suitable for consumption. Buying in bulk is also a popular practice in these countries, allowing consumers to purchase large and often impractical quantities at a discounted price. Between 30% and 50% of food purchased in developed countries is thrown away.

How do we combat this issue now, before it gets even more out of control? IMechE has some recommendations:

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization should work with engineers worldwide to establish better food storage and transport practices in developed countries, aimed at improving the percentage of produce that makes it to market.

Developed societies should change the way they market to customers. Instead of focusing predominantly on the look of the product, they should shift the focus to quality. Consumers should be encouraged to only purchase what they need, rather than buying produce in bulk.

Developing societies should take transportation and storage into account when creating their supply chain infrastructure.

Solving the problem of food waste is not just up to government organizations. What are some things that we as businesses in the supply chain can do to help?

Grocery stores can offer more sales focused on items with upcoming expiration dates, instead of sales based on the quantity of a product purchased. This will move product before it has to be thrown away, and doesn’t encourage consumers to purchase more than they need.

Vendors at food industry trade shows can donate all leftover samples to a local shelter, rather than throwing them away.

Distributors can institute programs to eliminate overstock and short-coded merchandise.  In doing so, they can mitigate loss on the products, and provide helpful discounts to business owners, who can then pass along wallet-friendly prices to consumers.

What other ways can you think of to help prevent food waste? Is there anything you are currently doing to take on this issue? Share your ideas below.