Reducing food waste could help prevent damage to the environment

Experts from the University of Sheffield contribute to World Bank report which found reducing food waste could improve food security and environmental sustainability.

A metal rubbish bin overflowing with wasted food. A man is holding the bin lid up.

Reducing food loss and waste could play a significant role in cutting the environmental footprint of the food we produce, and boost food and nutrition security, a new report from the World Bank has found.

As part of a team for the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) - a group of experts working toward a sustainable, resource-efficient economy - researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food contributed to the report which found that investments in reducing food loss and waste (FLW) could lead to significant improvements for food security and environmental sustainability.

For the past 120 years, increasing the yields of a few staple crops has been the focus for producing enough food globally. However, this agri-food system is now considered unsustainable, endangering the environment and failing to meet the calorific and nutrient needs of a population expected to increase by three billion people in the next 30 years.

Progress in reducing FLW by countries who committed to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 has been patchy, and current estimates suggest that globally, 30 percent of the food produced each year is wasted at the farming, transport and processing stages, or at the retail and consumer levels.

The recent coronavirus pandemic has also brought to light the instability of global food supply chains and a new reliance on domestic supplies, which led to producers destroying unsold goods.

Addressing Food Loss and Waste: A Global Problem with Local Solutions took data for food commodities (such as chicken, bread, fruit and milk) in the UK, Rwanda, Vietnam and Nigeria and used a simulation model to understand how these food supply chains perform when under pressure to identify solutions for a new sustainable model of food production.

The researchers found the best policy options for reducing FLW would depend on a country’s specific circumstances, such as whether targeting waste at consumer or production level would be viable for better managing a country’s greenhouse gas emissions; whether cheaper food prices of basic commodities encouraged waste, and whether reclaiming that waste could bolster food security.

The World Bank has written a game changing report. This report clearly shows that reductions in food loss and waste could play a significant role in reducing the environmental footprint of food while boosting food and nutrition security. The evidence is clear, we need to act now at local, national, and global scales to reduce food loss and waste.

This report sets out a global economic case for reducing food loss and waste, for the first time we have the answers to questions including: would higher food prices reflecting environmental values reduce food loss and waste? Would less food loss and waste reduce the environmental footprint of food systems and improve food security? And at which stage of the food supply chain would reducing food loss and waste be most effective?

Dr Christian Reynolds

Contributor to the report, and visiting researcher at the Institute of Sustainable food and Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Food Policy, City University

Experts from the Institute for Sustainable Food and Energy Institute at the University of Sheffield have started to put those practical recommendations into place by working with WRAP to produce a Household Simulation Model (HHSim). This ground-breaking model helps users to understand the household dynamics that can affect food waste, such as purchasing, storage and consumption. It has been designed to determine which changes to people’s behaviour and food products can lead to the largest reductions in food waste.

WRAP now uses the HHSim to inform discussion with British food manufacturers and supermarkets on how to make longer lasting and less wasteful products. Insight from this model has supported changes to the labelling of milk that should lead to less being wasted. It has also been used to highlight the role that long-life products have in preventing waste.

Insight from this model has led to the redesign of milk and dairy products such as Arla Cravendale milk, as well as the pack and portion size options for many meat products - such as bacon and ham.

Young Asian woman shopping for milk in grocery store - stock photo

"It is great to see Arla launching a new food waste campaign in partnership with Tesco. Our household simulation model shows that if everyone switched to longer life milk, this could drastically reduce milk waste in the home - to the scale of up to 150,000 tonnes per year. This represents a large carbon footprint reduction as well”, said Dr Reynolds.

We hope our research helps drive down food waste nationally and internationally, stimulates adoption of our model by industry and contributes to achieving sustainability in business and society.

Professor Lenny Koh

Director of the Energy Institute at the University of Sheffield

“Strategies to reduce food loss and waste can deliver multiple benefits,” said Juergen Voegele, World Bank Vice President for Sustainable Development. “Together with other policies and investments, these strategies can play a major part in helping countries improve the health of their people, economies and environment.”

Additional information

  • The Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield brings together multidisciplinary expertise and world-class research facilities to help achieve food security and protect the natural resources we all depend on.
  • Addressing Food Loss and Waste: A Global Problem with Local Solutions and the four related country diagnostics were supported by The Rockefeller Foundation. They represent a collaborative effort involving multiple researchers and practitioners and draw on data and insights from Cornell University and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (which operates as WRAP), a group of experts working toward a sustainable, resource-efficient economy.
  • The World Bank Group, one of the largest sources of funding and knowledge for developing countries, is taking broad, fast action to help developing countries strengthen their pandemic response. We are supporting public health interventions, working to ensure the flow of critical supplies and equipment, and helping the private sector continue to operate and sustain jobs. We will be deploying up to $160 billion in financial support over 15 months to help more than 100 countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery. This includes $50 billion of new IDA resources through grants and highly concessional loans.

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