An incredible 40 percent of the world’s fresh produce is lost post-harvest or wasted at retail and consumer level. Urgent for the environment, best for business: IFCO works to reduce food waste and loss by helping food producers, distributors and retailers keep crops fresher longer.
Quantifying exactly how much food is wasted each year is a phenomenal task. Until recently, thanks to an in-depth 2011 study by the United Nations and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it was generally accepted that around one-third of all food produced in the world was lost or wasted annually. A 2019 FAO update determined that we lose 14 percent before it even gets to the retailers, and a further 17 percent is wasted in homes, retailers and restaurants. However, today’s true figure is likely to be much higher.
Driven to Waste: The Global Impact of Food Loss and Waste on Farms, a comprehensive study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and the UK retailer Tesco and published in 2021, puts the total amount of food wasted at closer to 40 percent. Supply chain inefficiencies certainly contribute to agricultural losses, resulting in around 1.2 billion tons of food that is wasted on farms alone, the report concludes. Roughly ten percent of such loss can be attributed to transporting products in disposable packaging.1
In total, a staggering 2.6 billion tons of food goes uneaten around the world. This figure reflects on-farm losses, as well as food loss along the entire fresh grocery supply chain and food waste at retailer and consumer level. Approximately 45 percent of all fruits and vegetables grown will never be eaten.2 The high cost of food waste for businesses, the planet and society
But losing food is not just bad for business. It has a human toll, including hunger and malnutrition, while the global population continues to expand exponentially. And equally as alarming, food loss leads to environmental destruction. Harvested food that is lost in the supply chain contributes 8 to 10 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions as food decomposes on fields or in landfills. Overall, food loss is the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, behind only the nations of the US and China.
From agriculture through consumption, preventing food loss "represents one of the greatest possibilities for individuals, companies and communities to reverse global warming," says Chad Fischmann, vice president and research director at Project Drawdown , a global research institute dedicated to fighting climate change. At the same time, preventing food loss also means being able to "feed more people, increase economic benefits and preserve threatened ecosystems," Fischmann says. 3 This includes enormous amounts of water, land, and energy needed to produce and distribute crops. Cutting food waste and loss is not merely good business – it is a moral imperative.
Along the supply chain, fresh produce can become damaged during transport from farms to distribution centers to retailers. To establish the effect of packaging on damage rates, product packaging experts at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) observed the condition of fresh produce arriving in disposable versus reusable packaging at distribution centers and at retail outlets.
They observed that more than 8.5 percent of produce in disposable packaging arriving at distribution centers was damaged. This compares to zero product damage in IFCO Reusable Packaging Containers (RPCs).
At stores, nearly 12 percent of fruits and vegetables in disposable packaging was damaged. Researchers again observed zero product damage in IFCO RPCs. This shows that the choice of packaging can greatly lower damage to fresh produce and subsequent food waste.
The term food loss specifically refers to any food that is lost in the supply chain between the producer and the market, including handling, storage, packing or transportation. Included in food loss is food waste, which primarily refers to discarding food. In low-income economies, high levels of food loss occur, whereas in wealthier societies, much food is wasted.
"Postharvest loss and waste occurs at every level of the value chain, beginning with the farmers who produce our food, all the way to the consumer," says Bonnie McClafferty, Director of the Agriculture for Nutrition Global Program in the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, globally, nearly USD 940 billion annually in food is lost or wasted. So how do such vast levels occur? For food producers and distributors, many of the losses can be understood as supply chain failures.
How long fruits and vegetables can be eaten post-harvest depends on how fast they lose moisture and use up their stored reserves of nutrients. External conditions including temperature and relative humidity, as well as handling, can cause damage to produce and speed up their decay process.4
To reduce food loss, fresh produce requires proper handling conditions – which means produce is ventilated, protected, and prepared for timely distribution. And extended shelf life helps retailers and consumers to better control food waste by preserving the freshness of produce longer. This is why selecting the right packaging is key to managing these factors and preventing food waste.
Food that arrives at markets in better condition is less likely to end up on landfills. These factors affect food quality:
Challenge: Producers and distributors require containers that allow proper ventilation. Field heat must disperse after harvesting, and temperatures must be maintained during transport and warehousing. Without such temperature control, produce is likely to soften and become more easily damaged. Non-refrigerated transport, or exposure to frost, can accelerate this process.
Solution: Ideal ventilation and air circulation, as offered by IFCO reusable packaging containers (RPCs). Temperature control keeps produce fresher longer, increasing the likelihood of goods reaching consumers in better condition.
Challenge: Produce must be protected during all stages of post-harvest. Bruised or cut produce, for example, degrades faster. Flimsy, weak or otherwise inadequate materials, or irregular-sized containers lead to produce damage, which ultimately decreases shelf life for retailers and consumers.
Solution: IFCO RPCs are made of sturdy material that does not absorb moisture, and a design that allows secure stacking. The corners of IFCO RPCs fit exactly on top of one another, so that the weight rests on the crates and not on their contents. The side walls are also specially constructed to protect delicate produce.
Challenge: When the produce has been properly ventilated and protected, the groundwork has been laid for produce to be delivered. But it still has to arrive promptly, efficiently and in good condition.
Solution: Standardized and precise IFCO RPC dimensions enable efficient automated sorting and order picking. Stable containers allow secure stacking. Reducing the need for manual handling also lowers product damage.
Challenge: Poor packaging leads to damage – for example, from improper temperature or lack of protection – which can shorten shelf life. Food typically degrades when moisture exits, oxygen gets in and mold takes over.
Solution: Proper ventilation is key to ensuring maximum shelf life. IFCO RPCs reduce visible and cellular damage to produce in transit. This means that retailers can display produce longer, and it remains in better condition once consumers get it home.
By providing proper ventilation, durable protection, and preparation for efficient automated handling, and extended shelf life, IFCO RPCs help minimize food loss during post-harvest handling. Using proper packaging can help save food at the retail and consumer levels as well. For example, IFCO works with growers and retailers to efficiently manage fluctuations in demand through flexible order processing and RPC delivery. Any empty crates are easily swapped out in-store with full ones. Through this "one-touch" system, IFCO RPCs also reduce the need for manual handing, so delicate foods suffers less damage. Less food waste– and less solid waste from transport packaging – are the result.
Of course, more can and needs to be done across the food chain. While food loss is mostly unintentional, food waste is largely avoidable. Learn more about possible solutions, as well as IFCO’s efforts in tackling food waste and loss.
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