The many facets of food waste

The many facets of food waste

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In a scoping review of the literature around food losses and waste, authors in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health identified the links between unconsumed food and nutrition, health and environmental impacts.

Food losses refer to food that does not reach the retail stage, due to losses on farm and along the supply chain. Food waste encompasses retail and consumer waste. This review discussed both losses and waste, as well as including discussion of plastic waste from food packaging.

The authors made the connection between food waste and nutrient waste, finding that both the magnitude of waste and the specific nutrients wasted varied greatly between individuals and between studies. An interesting link was made between waste and diet quality: higher quality diets were associated with greater food waste in some studies, particularly waste of fruit and vegetables. Fruit and vegetables have some of the highest loss and waste proportions of all food groups (15-60%), due to the perishability of these foods and their perceived value by consumers. The authors were able to tie this fruit and vegetable waste back to environmental impacts such as wasted irrigation water, cropland and pesticide use.

Plastic packaging in the food system is a double-edged sword. Plastic is very effective at extending the shelf life of food, and protecting it from contamination and damage. However, current high plastic production and waste is recognised as a sustainability challenge. In Europe, 30% of plastic waste is recycled, 31% is sent to landfill and the remaining 39% is incinerated.

As well as the environmental impacts of plastic packaging, the review covered the commonly discussed links between food waste and environmental impacts. This includes both the waste of inputs (e.g. the land use, fertiliser use, and other inputs associated with production of food that is not consumed) and the impacts of disposal of food waste.

Looking to food waste solutions, most interventional trials in schools (such as those that reduced portion sizes) were successful in reducing food waste in this environment. Looking at food banks and food redistribution, numerous nutritional deficiencies and excesses were identified in existing redistribution efforts. It was found that effective redistribution planning increased nutritional quality and reduced waste.

While the authors discussed the need to reduce overconsumption of food from a health and packaging waste perspective, they did not discuss overconsumption itself as a form of food waste. Food and nutrient intakes above safe recommended levels pose both a health risk and are analogous to food waste: this food is not serving a positive nutritional purpose. Therefore, the inputs necessary in the production of this food could be considered wasted, and the food cannot go to the benefit of those who may need it.

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