Food loss is a significant issue in today’s world; the food that is not consumed and is wasted constitutes a loss in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. Food losses directly impact food security, quality and safety, economic development, and the environment. Food waste is associated with a waste of resources, including water, energy, land, inputs, and GHG emissions.
Definitions of “food loss” and “food waste”
Food loss and waste, which sometimes are used as synonyms, constitute two different processes. Food losses refer to the decrease in edible food that occurs through the supply chain; food losses occur at the production, post-harvest, and processing stages of the food supply chain. The loss of food at the end of the chain, either in retail or final consumption, is called food waste.
Losses due to storage, transportation, distribution, marketing and consumption can be alleviated by using specifically designed food coatings that can prevent spoilage and rotting.
Causes of food loss and food waste
The exact causes of food loss and waste vary across the world and are very dependent on the specific context. However, it is generally possible to ascertain that food losses are influenced by crop production patterns, infrastructure and capacity, marketing chains, distribution channels and consumer purchasing practices.
Even if food is wasted through the supply chain, different phenomena can be detected in high-income and low-income countries. In medium and high-income countries, food is mainly wasted at the retail or consumer level; this means that it is disposed of, even if it is still suitable for consumption. In low-income countries, food is mainly lost in the production, post-harvest, and processing stages of the supply chain.
Food loss and waste in numbers
A worldwide study estimated that around 30% of the world’s food was lost or wasted every year. A more recent FAO assessment concluded that up to 14% of food is wasted in the world from post-harvest up to the retail level. Food is lost in every continent, with the higher rates occurring in Central and Southern Asia (21%). In comparison, the rates for industrialized nations in North America and Europe are close to 16%. The lowest rates in the globe are found in Australia and New Zealand (6%).
In terms of specific food categories that are lost; roots, tubers and oil-bearing crops are the highest (25%), followed by fruits and vegetables (22%), meat and animal products (12%), and cereals and pulses (9%). Fruits and vegetables are mainly lost during on-farm operations, storage and processing, and packaging.
In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30% and 40% of the food supply; this corresponds to around 60 million tonnes and US$161 billion. In the European Union, around 88 million tons of food are wasted each year, with a cost of 143 billion euros.
The best approach to reducing food loss and waste is not to create it in the first place. Waste can be avoided in several ways, including improving product development, storage, shipping, labeling, and marketing. However, if excess food is unavoidable, several strategies can be taken, including donating it for hunger relief. If food is in an inedible state, it can be recycled into animal feed, compost, bioenergy, and bioplastics.
Food waste in fruits, the importance of cosmetic appearances
In high-income countries, fruit and vegetable losses occur mainly in the consumption and distribution stages. In contrast, in low-income countries, a higher proportion of the product is lost between the production and processing stages. The losses and waste that occur in the different stages worldwide amount to nearly one half of all fruit and vegetables produced being lost.
Appearance quality standards for fresh produce from supermarkets can lead to food waste. Indeed, a perfectly fine product in terms of nutrition can be rejected based on size, shape, or appearance. Cosmetic specifications that normalize the size, shape and color of food are crucial along the whole food chain; from producers to intermediary and middle actors such as exporters and importers, and final purchasers, including retailers and consumers. Cosmetic specifications ultimately determine what food can and cannot be sold based solely on external appearance.
Due to the increased scrutiny of food waste, the European Union began to relax its regulations on selling fruits and vegetables with imperfect appearance. Retailers have slowly and cautiously begun offering misshapen products. Nonetheless, consumer behavior hasn’t changed from one day to the next. In general, slightly or moderately misshapen fruits and vegetables have a better chance of being bought than heavily deformed products. Even when consumers have a better perception of different shapes and colors in their fruits, it is still critical to ensure that products last for longer and that food waste is reduced.
Fruit coatings, key in reducing fruit waste
Intermediaries, for whom food is an input, have a clear incentive to reduce food loss. Food importers can play a crucial role in lessening food losses and waste by carefully choosing their suppliers and supply chain methods.
There are several techniques to preserve produce for a longer time. Among them is applying coatings that can reduce moisture loss, slow the post-harvest decay, and extend the product’s shelf life. Coatings can close small cracks in the skin of fruits, creating a barrier that stops the spread of bacteria and fungi that can affect the product.
Several coating products exist in the market today; they are made from either all-natural ingredients (like PolyNatural Shel-Life™), synthetic ingredients, or a mix of both. Among the most common ingredients are sugarcane, carnauba, beeswax, and polyethylene. However, all coatings are not received equally in global food markets. The European Union has strict food regulations for the usage of food coatings, allowing the usage of Beeswax (E 901), Candelilla wax (E 902), Carnauba wax (E 903), Shellac (E 904) and Microcrystalline wax (E 905). Furthermore, if the product -and its ingredients- are certified, they can be sold in organic markets.
Some chemicals are banned from the UK and the European Union, such as morpholine; complete fruit shipments that contained this chemical have been banned from commercializing in the region, with great losses to producers and traders.
Another reason for food importers to prefer natural coatings is to satisfy consumer’s demands. Current consumer’s preferences go along with buying natural, organic, and fair-trade certified products. Therefore, trading these products is not only a sound environmental choice but also good for business.
PolyNatural: a solution for natural coatings to preserve fruits
PolyNatural offers a natural coating based on vegetable extracts and vegetable polymers that extends the shelf life of fruits. It reduced the incidence of rot by 3% and dehydration by 7%, increasing by 40% gondola days. Shel-Life™’s PolyNatural offers the same or better performance than synthetic waxes while being natural, which positions it at an advantage for discerning customers and strict international markets.
On organic apples, Shel-Life™ performs 4.85 times better in terms of rot incidence, reducing it to 0.4%. It has the same performance on conventional apples as synthetic waxes. On conventional nectarines, Shel-Life™ is 132% superior in controlling rot incidence and reduces the fruit’s dehydration. On lemons, Shel-Life™ shows 75% less dehydration and 50% less rotten incidence. On avocados, it reduces dehydration and extends shelf life by 20%.
PolyNatural products include specially designed coatings for pomaceous, citrus, stone fruits, and avocado. With more than 35,000 tons already shipped and organic certifications in the USA and the EU, their coatings are a sure bet for food importers.
Waste and food losses are no longer an option for most countries, and they have implemented legislation that will impact the whole food chain, from small food producers to big export companies. Most importantly, an agreement has been reached to diminish the impact that food waste and losses have on the environment and society. The private sector is taking an active role in this, working hand to hand with governmental agencies. An example of this is the Courtauld Commitment, “a voluntary agreement aimed at improving resource efficiency and reducing waste within the UK grocery sector”, more than 50 retailers are already part of this.
Another interesting approach is the “10x20x30” supply chain initiative, where 10 of the biggest food and agricultural companies “commit to act and engage their 20 largest suppliers to do the same by 2030”.
The time is now, importers, exporters and trade companies are taking action and, by reducing food waste and losses, are gaining reputation and profitability.