Why the wastage?

By Patrick Corby


The United Nations (UN) has projected that the global population will hit 9.5 billion by 2075, meaning that before the next century mankind will have an extra 2.5 – 3 billion members on the planet.

At today’s standards, with all of our cultivation techniques, technology, storage and transport we produce around four billion metric tonnes of food per annum – the equivalent of 22,250,000 blue whales. Taking into consideration market and consumer behavior, it is estimated that a colossal total of 40% of this produce is wasted.

Entrepreneurs, institutions and governments are beginning to address this situation and the challenges and opportunities it will bring.

Most of the population growth is weighted in the continent of Africa, a largely underestimated size of land that can easily hold the USA, China, India and Eastern Europe inside its boarders. Here the population is set to jump from 1 billion to 2.5 billion by 2050.

As well as the largest growth rate Africa also holds the biggest supply side wastage, with inefficient harvesting techniques, storage facilities and inadequate legislation infrastructure for market activity.

Overall demand is expected to increase by 70% by the middle of the century with 50% occurring in Africa alone.

In contrast, the market activity in developed nations, such as the UK, has solved much of the inefficiency associated with the supply side. Wastage in the developed countries stems from the consumer side, where food is lost through cultural behavior.

In the UK around 30%, or 1.6 million tonnes, of wastage is accounted for annually by the rejection of produce that does not meet physical or market sell-by standards, such as size or appearance.

Along with this over-consumption, caused by excessive marketing, wastes around 40% (seven million tonnes – worth about £10.2 billion) of food in home in the UK, costing an average of £480 per household a year.

So, we waste excessively and, were demanding more.

The question must be asked: Taking both of these aspects of wastage into consideration – inefficiency at supply level and behavior at customer level – what can be expected as our population increases? To answer this we can analyse what happened last time.

In the 1960s the world population was around 3 billion; around fifty years later in 2012 the population hit 7 billion. What made up the extra needed produce then? According to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) it was primarily technological change, alongside a “modest” 12% increase in land utilised.

With agricultural production set to increase by 25% in 2030 there will be approximately 5 billion metric tonnes of food produced worldwide; so the technological side is sorted. The necessary increase in land utilisation however could come from the same place that the domestic growth will: Africa.

Research by the World Bank has shown that India uses 61% of its land for agriculture, China uses 56% and the Euro area uses an average of 46%, but Sub-Saharan Africa only uses 44%. With the continent able to fit all of these geographic areas inside its own boarders and more the space for improvement is vast. If, its allowed.

According to the World Bank, who rank nations’ “ease of doing business”, the 47 Sub-Saharan countries are some of the worst places to invest or start-up.

The cost of starting a business in Africa, on average, is 67% of an individual’s income in a year, with a tax rate of 58% per annum and trading cross border costing $2,000 per container, compared to $950 in the UK.

The use of land in Africa may need to improve to sustain its population. Photo: Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images

The use of land in Africa will see pressure to improve to sustain its rapidly growing population.
Photo: Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images

Alongside this the continent has an overwhelmingly burdensome legal system, taking 649 days to file, trial and enforce a judgement Africa is not set up as of yet to accommodate its future expected population. With the help of institutions such as the UN, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank this should change.

With legal infrastructure set up to accommodate a more rapid market activity the coordination and transference of knowledge would improve efficiency dramatically and pre-empt the transitional population problems that could occur.

For example , work by the New York Columbia University has shown that Sub-Saharan African grain yield could be tripled from one tonne per hectare to three by replenishing nutrients and restoring the soil to its 1960s levels.

As for the developed nations’ food wastage, a cultural change is needed. The level of wastage is an outrage regarding the economic efficiency we hold ourselves to.

An IMechEs report on the nutritional problems faced by a growing population proposes the implementation of policy that reduces consumer wastage by wholesale suppliers.

This action would target the strict sell-by regulations that cause wholesalers to be over-sensitive – throwing  even the most minutely deformed produce away. Less strict regulations would reduce this significantly, as would start-up initiatives such as selling “ugly fruit and vegetables”.

There are also initiatives that combat these problems, such as the “Love Food Hate Waste” campaign, which helps UK household reduce their food waste, which could be built upon.

These changes would also slowly produce a cultural shift to a greater tolerance and lower expectations on wholesalers reducing wastage from the consumer level.

However the truth is that, although not desirable, this wastage is very sustainable. As the population in Africa grows, their domestic land will be pressured into farmland to feed the extra populous. This should be helped along and initiated now by international institutions – like the UN – who are set up for such work.

But unlike the emphasis in the IMechE report the extra food is unlikely to come from our wastage, giving us the freedom to keep wasting. What may happen is, as the current economic crisis plays out, our wastage might be curtailed but by nowhere near enough to decrease 40% significantly.

Right now though, there is not an overwhelming pressure for the “developed” to change naturally.

Read the IMechE report here.

Read my archive at TheUpcoming here.


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