We live in an age of paradox. On the one hand, over 795 million people around the world are under-nourished. On the other hand, issues associated with excess edible food waste are causing an environmental, social and economic crisis. In this piece, PhD student Mehrnaz Tajmir considers whether we need to take a different approach to measuring and therefore reducing food waste throughout the supply chain.
Levels of food waste
Reports have shown that over a third of the world’s food produce is never consumed, causing a staggering $400 billion loss per year for the global food supply chain. The edible food discarded by supermarkets and consumers in developed countries in a single year would exceed the amount required to end world hunger. Evidently, this issue will only worsen as the global population increases. In fact, estimates have shown that as the global middle class expands, by the year 2030, the financial losses of food waste will increase to up to $600 billion per year.
Environmentally, food waste is a great contributor to global warming due to its high quantities of greenhouse gas emissions (such as methane and carbon dioxide). The current global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions caused by food waste in landfill is estimated at 3.3 billion metric tons, or about 7% of the global emissions. To put this in perspective, the United Nations agency has stated that the amount of methane gas produced from the global food landfill is more than the cumulative GHG emissions of China and the United States.
The environmental toll of food waste is also reflected in water and land pollution. This is due to industry’s excessive use of fertilisers as well as deforestation for cattle grazing and farming. Food packaging, transportation and storage also contribute to carbon footprints of food production. This irreversible environmental damage will be costly for the planet as well as for humans if no action is taken to improve the current state of the food industry.
The role of supermarkets
Our research here at the University of Bath focuses on developed countries. We are looking at the main features of the food supply chain and more specifically, the causes of food waste in the UK. So far, we have found that within this complex system, major supermarkets are the focal point. They influence the way we buy and consume produce as well as having an impact downstream at farm level. However, despite their influential role, large supermarkets themselves are only directly responsible for less than 1% of food waste in the UK, claiming to be running more efficiently than even before. This is due to both internal and external strict policies regarding environmental footprint of waste and its social impacts. Hence, there is a general assumption that corporates have either achieved or are moving towards their optimum sustainable performance. The message is that the current level of waste generated by the supermarkets, taking into account the available technology, cannot be further reduced.
Conversely, in academia the study of waste from the operations and organisations perspective has shown certain trade-offs in the application of sustainable strategies. In other words, to gain economic advantage, corporates might overlook their social and environmental impacts. So, are the current waste strategies sufficient or is there more action still required? And how can corporates improve their non-avoidable waste across the entire supply chain?
CSR and supply chains
We believe that incorporating principles of corporate social responsibility and sustainability into waste strategies could help to turn waste into value. If all actors in a supply chain took a shared responsibility for measurable waste throughout the chain, and aligned their metrics, it would be easier to identify where waste is happening and to take action to prevent it. As major players in the supply chain, supermarkets could impact the level of waste generation in the entire chain rather than focusing on the performance at shop level. Moreover, through lowering waste across the supply chain, we can also consider the optimisation of performance levels in much broader terms to incorporate environmental footprints, social impacts and economic savings.
Our research is at an early stage. However we hope to generate a case study to investigate the effects of corporate social responsibility in alignment of waste metrics between two organisations and its impact on waste reduction. Then using this we could simulate the data and estimate larger impacts on the network level.
The issue of food waste cannot be resolved with one solution as the supply chains and relationships involved are so complex. A collective effort is required to create more coordinated supply chains through implementation of sustainable practices between supply chain members. At the same time, organisations must continue to actively educate customers on ways to avoid food waste through more informative packaging and storage instruction. Then and only then can we move towards a greener future.
Mehrnaz Tajmir is a mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Bath. She is currently in the first year of her PhD at the University of Bath School of Management.
Image: US Department of Agriculture