Food waste is a problem in developed as well as undeveloped countries. Although the causes vary, in many cases that waste could be minimized, believes Tim Fox, head of Energy and Environment for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the United Kingdom.

“With the knowledge we have today in the engineering practice community, we can meet many of the challenges facing us now,” he said. “Do the basic math: If we can feed 6 billion people on 2 to 2.8 billion tons of food, we should be able to feed 9 to 10 billion people on a little more than 4 billion tons. If we’re presently wasting 30% to 50% of the food we produce, and we identify ways to minimize that loss, not only can we feed more people on what is already being produced, but we can radically reduce pressure on water, energy and land-use as well.”

Food loss happens in developing and emerging economies due to poor harvesting techniques, inadequately engineered storage and transportation infrastructure. In fact, Fox says 40% of losses are a result of poorly engineered storage (21 million tons of wheat annually in India and 3.2 million tons annually in Pakistan).

In developed countries with “mature” economies, it’s a mentality of excess:

  • Retailer practices encourage over-purchasing (think Costco and Sam’s Club)
  • Supermarket contracts (and most consumers) require cosmetic perfection
  • Consumer behavior in the home and marketplace (think how much food is thrown out in homes because consumers don’t cook as much, nor do they know what to do with leftovers)
  • Hospitality industry procurement practices of serving too much food

Obviously, these are “fixable” problems, but they require dramatic shifts in consumer attitudes, buying habits and behaviors. In developed economies, we need to “reconnect with the value of food,” says Fox.

One key issue is how to produce more food in a world of finite resources, said Fox. Today, farmers produce about four billion metric tons of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, as much as half of that food is wasted.

“This does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilizers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands,” Fox said.

“This is not rocket science,” he added. “In terms of developing/emerging nations, we need to facilitate a clean technology ‘leapfrog’ over the resource-hungry unsustainable phase of industrialization, to avoid our previous failures and mistakes.

“Reducing food wastage and losses could significantly help meet the challenges of food security for 9.5 billion people by the late 21st Century,” he said.