It’s time to act against food loss and waste in favor of public’s health
Neff, R. A.; Kanter, R.; and Vandevijvere, S. (2015). "Reducing food loss and waste while improving the public's health." Health Affairs, 34, n.11, pp. 1821-1829. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2015.0647
Across the globe, an estimated average of 30 percent of the food production is lost or wasted. In the U.S., that number rises up to 40 percent. The terms loss and waste represent different meanings, as defined by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization; loss refers to food lost during agricultural production and processing, while waste refers to food loss during retail sales and consumption. The UN aims to halve the food waste per capita by 2030, as so to reduce food losses along production. Interestingly, food waste is more significant in high-income countries, while food losses are greater within low- and medium-income countries. In the first case, high consumption patterns result in great amounts of food wasted, whereas in countries with poor infrastructure and technologies, food losses are the major issue. Many public health aspects intersect those issues and should be used to improve food access reducing both kinds of food loss.
In a study published in Health Affairs,a group of researchers — led by Roni Neff from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — discussed the issues involving the intersection of public health and food loss and waste. There are three main areas where food reductions — food loss and waste (FLW) — collide with public health matters, namely: food security, food safety, and nutrition. The authors investigated the many opportunities and challenges presented in the adoption of policy approaches that can help to advance questions on FLW and public health simultaneously. The opportunities are observed when there are synergic relationships between goals addressing both issues; challenges reflect conflicts of interest.
The area of food security refers to the lack (or disruption) of sufficient food intake, and presents opportunities related to farming methods, the supply chain structures, and food recovery programs. Farms should be oriented towards sustainability to reduce food losses, while addressing resilience to threats, the authors write. Policies that direct funds for training and technical assistance are important, including financial incentive programs, and research investments. Also helpful are policies to improve data availability to predict crop yields and plan purchasing. On the supply chain side, there is a strong need to develop better storage and mechanization through innovation technologies. As for advancing food recovery, the key strategy is to minimize costs for making donations, like giving tax breaks or removing barriers for food redistribution. One example is a recent policy implemented in France, where a policy proposal criminalizes supermarket food discards. There might be challenges, like the possibility of donors placing the onus of picking and disposing the spoiled or expired food on the recipients.
In terms of food safety, the biggest issue surrounding food discards is showed by the (often misguided) concerns on consuming unsafe food. The opportunities rely on improving storage and packaging methods, while also focusing on proper working conditions for all workers along the supply chain. The matter of clear labels and guidelines for consumers is another important area for improvement. As a challenging point, the authors see the cultural aspect of consumption and discarding as a field for more research to better understand different consumers.
Nutrition is a highly relevant issue for the U.S.; obesity and diet-related chronic diseases have increased in the last 40 years, along with an increase of 50 percent in food waste generation. The overproduction is a great factor for FLW, with the U.S. currently producing double of calories needed for the country's energy requirements. Policy changes addressing that are recommended. The high amount of wasted produce presents major opportunities for diversion through innovative campaigns and reduced prices. One critical opportunity would be to empower consumer's knowledge and awareness for better decisions that can reduce FLW, as well as policies to reduce portion sizes within food production. The major challenge here is the need to improve food processing and promoting health while reducing FLW.
The study concludes that a better understanding of root causes of FLW globally in terms of food chains and social-cultural contexts will help advance the implementation of the proposed policy interventions. Still, the monitoring of FLW is required to measure program and policy impacts. Furthermore, the inclusion of voices advocating for public health on the FLW issue is essential to tackle opportunities and challenges.