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With sustainable and plant-based diets becoming more normalised, attention has been given to food waste and how to reduce its impact on the environment; the handling of food and its associated greenhouse gas emissions are not far behind those of the energy and transportation industries. 

Food Waste Statistics

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), if food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd-largest contributor of carbon emissions, after the US and China. In terms of area, food waste would be as big as India and Canada combined. These figures are staggering considering that 11% of the global population is undernourished. 

The UN estimates that 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year, a third of the world’s total production. According to the IPCC, the loss and waste of food was responsible for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions between 2010 and 2016. Food waste also leads to a waste of the resources (water, energy, labour, capital and land) used to grow, transport and package the food. The FAO estimates that food loss and waste costs developed nations USD $680 billion and developing nations $310 billion annually. 

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Earth.org food waste by region
A graph showing the waste per person per year in kgs by region (Source: FAO)

While developed and developing countries waste similar quantities of food (650 million tonnes per year), in developing countries, 40% of the losses occur at the post-harvest and processing stages, while in developed countries, 40% of the losses occur at the retail and consumer levels. Solutions depend on the stage these losses occur at; for example, developed countries need to focus on better retail practices and changing consumer behaviour, while developing countries need to focus on improving storage and distribution infrastructure as well as providing financial and technical support for better harvesting techniques. 

Food Waste Solutions

A number of innovative solutions already exist for countries looking to tackle food waste. In a joint collaboration with the company Too Good To Go, Unilever, Arla Foods and Carlsberg have added a new packaging label, ‘often good after’ directly after the ‘best-before date’ on certain foods to inform consumers about expiry dates versus best-before dates. The latter is meant to be an indicative measure requiring consumers to judge whether food is expired based on sight and smell. This new practice is being launched in the Nordics and will expand to other markets provided legislation allows it.

Technology in Papua New Guinea is being used to help local farmers’ livestock meet internationally-recognised standards. A digital tracking system helps verify important information about pigs like pedigree and what food and medicines they have been fed, giving importers and consumers greater purchasing confidence and reducing the risk of food being rejected and disposed of. This digital system was designed by the FAO and the International Telecommunications Unit (ITU); the broadband network is being improved locally so that farmers can update records easily on their subsidised phones.

Insignia Technologies has colour-changing tags that can be applied to products at the point of manufacture. The time-temperature indicators change the colour of the label according to the shelf life of the product, allowing restaurants to prioritise products that are about to get spoilt, thus reducing waste. 

UK academics are developing paper-based, smartphone-linked spoilage sensors for meat and fish packaging. They cost less than £0.02 each and are non-toxic and biodegradable, helping to detect spoilage and reduce food waste for supermarkets and consumers.

Global food waste initiative Winnow has developed software that tracks food being thrown away in kitchens. By using this software, businesses can record what’s being thrown away, assess the cost of the discarded food and get a detailed breakdown of each day’s waste to better manage their menus and reduce waste. 

Government interventions to reduce food loss and waste could include providing incentives or financial aid to smaller farmers and producers so that they can adopt more efficient techniques and practices. Organisations like the World Food Program help small farmers connect to people in need and also provide the necessary technologies for more efficient storage and distribution to prevent spoilage.

Local governments can support the set up of organisations like the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) in the UK that develops actions and milestones to help UK retailers and brands halve food waste by 2030. It provides guidance on labelling, packaging and storage and conducts and publishes surveys of businesses on their progress.

Updating legislation around labelling requirements so that the best-before and use-by dates are clearer to consumers, as well as ensuring solutions like the ‘often good after’ concept is brought in to markets, will also help.

Governments should also educate consumers on reducing food waste. The highest carbon footprint of wastage occurs at the consumption phase (37% of total), whereas consumption accounts for 22% of total food wastage; one kilogram of food that is wasted further along the supply chain will have a higher carbon intensity than at earlier stages.

Earth.org contribution of commodities to carbon footprint
A graph showing the contribution of commodities to carbon footprint and food waste (Source: FAO).

Cereals, vegetables and meats have intense carbon footprints and contribute heavily to food waste. It is vital to, in the case of meat, minimise consumption, while for cereals and vegetables, optimise how they are managed and consumed to reduce wastage.   

Project Drawdown, a global research organisation that identifies, reviews and analyses the most viable solutions to the climate crisis, ranked solutions to global warming and found that cutting down on food waste could have a similar impact on reducing emissions over the next three decades as onshore wind turbines. If small and large businesses, governments and consumers work together, about 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases can be prevented from being released into the atmosphere.

Other things that consumers can do to reduce their food waste is to simply buy less food- plan your meals to ensure that you only buy what you need. Be sure to store food correctly; some tips include keeping the refrigerator below 5°C, storing cooked foods on shelves above raw foods and storing food in sealed containers. Finally, freeze your leftovers so that they last a bit longer.

Singapore produces vast amounts of food waste, threatening its resources and land availability. How can this problem be solved?

Food Wastage Facts in Singapore

A study by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) found that Singapore households throw away around 26 000 tonnes- or S$342 million- in unconsumed food annually. Food waste accounts for about 10% of the total waste generated in Singapore, but only 17% of this is recycled. The rest of it is disposed of at waste-to-energy plants for incineration.

The SEC says that this wastage is due to improper storage, purchasing patterns and food handling habits. It identifies major drivers of food loss further down the supply chain, which include poor disease and pest management, over-importation of food items and inadequate infrastructure.

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Of those surveyed in the study, about one third said they throw away 10% or more of uncooked and unconsumed food items per week.

The study also found that 342 000 tonnes of food is lost in Singapore before it reaches retail and consumers, 49% of this from the loss of fruits and vegetables. 

Singapore Environment Council Chairman Isabella Huang-Loh, says, “More can be done in an industrialised country like Singapore to reduce food loss. Down the chain, better coordination and raising awareness among food industries, retailers and consumers can go a long way to reduce food loss and waste.”

Singapore has implemented its Zero Waste Masterplan, which outlines the Republic’s strategies to build a sustainable and climate resilient nation. The campaign says that food waste is one of the biggest waste streams in Singapore and that the amount of food waste generated has grown by 40% in the last decade. In 2018, the country generated 763 million kgs of food waste, making up half of the average 1.5kgs of waste disposed of by each household in Singapore daily. Rice, noodles and bread are the most commonly wasted food items.

Wasting food means that more food has to be sourced to meet demand, affecting food security since Singapore imports over 90% of its food supply. It also means that the Republic will need to build more waste disposal facilities, such as waste-to-energy plants and landfills for incineration ash, a difficult task for land-scarce Singapore. 

To conserve resources, food wastage must be minimised and unavoidable food waste must be treated, starting with avoiding wastage and excess food production (or re-distributing excess food) and then segregating food waste for recycling and treatment. Singapore is working on this issue through publicity and outreach programmes, where it educates consumers on how to adopt smart food purchasing, storage and preparation habits, as well as providing food manufacturers and retailers with handbooks to help them develop a food minimisation plan that suits them. Further, it is building up local research and development capabilities to discover innovative ways to recycle food waste.

What is Being Done?

In terms of legislation, the Resource Sustainability Act mandates that from 2024, large commercial and industrial food waste generators will be required to segregate food waste for treatment, including hotels and malls, as well as food storage warehouses manufacturers. Also, from 2021, developers of new developments which are expected to generate large amounts of food waste will be required to allocate space for on-site food waste treatments.

There is no shortage of potential solutions and it is vital that some of them, however novel, are tapped into. If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitting country in the world, generating about 8% of total greenhouse gas emissions, although some studies have this number at 11%. This issue is not location-specific, but an issue that affects every living thing on the planet and should therefore be seen as an urgent area to take action in.

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