What a waste

If we don’t discriminate against colour, creed or looks, why do we reject wonky fruit and vegetables?

We waste phenomenal amounts of good, nutritious food – up to a third of farmed produce never gets to our plate. And often because the food is blemished and does not show well in the supermarket. This would only be a moral problem if we lived on an ever-expanding planet with a shrinking populace. But in a few decades we will welcome another two billion hungry mouths as our population grows to around 10 billion souls by 2050. While this provides great opportunity for the enterprising, it comes with many pressures for all those businesses in the food chain – from farmers to supermarkets, packaging companies to logistics specialists, investors to landowners.

They will have to respond smartly to ever-rising demands from policy makers and consumers to eradicate waste. Read on to find out why we waste and how we can stop.


Over 800 million people (equivalent to the US and EU combined) are constantly hungry


Two-billion people are malnourished


A third of all food we produce is wasted

Having a malthus moment – why we worry about food waste

Despite being over-fed, we appear to be hard-wired into a fear of famine.

We are especially spooked by the thought of 10 billion hungry mouths to feed by 2050, two billion more of us than there are today: that’s nearly two Indias.

It’s the same fear that haunted the 18th Century thought leader and theologian Robert Malthus. He worried that society would never realise its full potential if it was unable to feed the growing number of hungry mouths. Famine, he warned, would lead to pestilence and vice.

The spectre of the 10 billion is giving us a Malthus Moment.


Pear Revolutionaries


Of course, Malthus forgot to factor in technology and he died a good century before the spectacular results of the Green Revolution in farming. This began after World War II when mechanisation and cheap fossil fuels combined with fertilisers, pesticides and modern farming techniques to boost farm outputs dramatically.

With all that food about, people began to multiply rapidly and the world experienced its second Malthus Moment when the American academic Paul Ehrlich published his influential Population Bomb in 1968. While Malthus may have forgotten about technology, Ehrlich failed to consider the prospect of population growth slowing down. This is what happened in developed countries, especially in Europe.


Food remains plentiful and cheap. Rich, technically advanced countries live like food oligarchs. Obesity is on the rise in rich and poor countries. But with the ‘10 by 2050’ ghoul being promoted by campaign groups like WWF – based on the planetary boundary arguments that we are running out of planet – the ghost of Malthus is back with a bang.

Again, those who are most frightened by the prospect of famine dismiss the role of technology (genetic modifications and test-tube proteins) and spread concern about our ability to feed ourselves. We are firmly in our third Malthus Moment.

Of course we will find a solution and science and technology will be part of it. But until the boffins get going, there is a relatively easy fix staring at us from the trash can: Stop wasting food. We don’t have to find more land. And we don’t have to go to Mars. If we could just save all the food we waste (a third of what’s grown), it should be enough to feed the extra two billion while we devise ways to feed the next 10 billion.

Much like the energy-efficiency argument – use less, generate less – we seem to find the simplicity of the act of preventing waste rather mystifying. We much prefer to build things (more dams), drill deeper (more underground water) and clear more land. Farming already uses 38% of our ice-free land, compared with just 2% for cities, and uses 70% of our fresh water.

Why we feel that salvation lies in hacking down more forest, expanding agriculture into ever more fragile environments and sucking up more water remains a mystery.

This slash and burn solution will not work. The campaigners are right, the planet is a finite resource. The laws of science define our predicament and direct us to be much more efficient in the way we grow, pack, distribute and use food.

Close to 30% of agricultural land is used to grow food that is subsequently wasted. It seems that we have no brain when it comes to no-brainers on what to do first.

Caption for this image

Bum Deal For Fruit

Business risks and opportunities

Shocked, shamed, disgusted.

Just some of the milder reactions of those who personally experience the scale of the food we waste. Walk out the back of any supermarket or food distributor to witness how perfectly good food is treated as trash. Wasting food has always been an emotional, moral issue. Now it has become a business concern.

It really is a millennial movement. It’s so refreshing to see a whole generation of people so passionate and excited about this issue

Ron Clark, a veteran of the Californian foodbank movement

Why worry?

Social media and millennials are the two primary watchwords when managing reputation (and making money). So it comes as no surprise that millennials, the prime users of social media, are not only reshaping the food industry through their buying habits but are energising the drive to find solutions to food waste.

‘It really is a millennial movement. It’s so refreshing to see a whole generation of people so passionate and excited about this issue,’ says Ron Clark, a veteran of the Californian foodbank movement, talking to Salon. ‘They’re going after the food waste issue in different ways, and for slightly different reasons. The millennials certainly care deeply about hunger, but are primarily concerned with saving the planet.’


The message is getting through to business. In early 2015, the UK supermarket, Waitrose, broke with normal practice and promoted South African apples that were blemished by unseasonal hailstones. A year earlier the crop would never have left the farm and would have been wasted, no matter how delicious.

Supermarkets, food writers and celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver have been leading the charge to change our view of what is considered good looking food. Their response is part of a mood change reflected in a French campaign which inspired a law that bans the trashing of unspoiled food by supermarkets. The Parisian politician who initiated the legislation is now lobbying the European Union to do the same.

This particular law has annoyed supermarkets who claim to be responsible for only 5% of France’s food waste. They may feel unfairly picked on but widespread support for the law demonstrates the emotional power of the issue and how vulnerable companies are if they are identified as wasters.

Given the zeal of campaigners and celebrity foodies to publicise wasteful practices, we can expect politicians to feel impelled to respond with laws and regulations that would further impinge on business. But not necessarily in a way that will encourage innovation.


It’s no wonder that business is beginning to take action. The Consumer Goods Forum committed in mid-2015 to halve food waste within the operations of its 400 retail and manufacturing members, by 2025. The Forum sees its pledge as contributing to carbon reductions, water saving and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Forum members include most of the large food companies, such as General Mills, Nestlé and Unilever, and major supermarkets such as Walmart and Carrefour. The Forum’s goals are restricted to the members’ operations. This may be a good place to start, but it will hardly improve matters because most of the waste happens further up the supply chain, or is the consequence of policy decisions by supermarkets.

Nevertheless, Forum members will have to get to work to set up the systems for measuring and reporting on their progress in meeting the target. They will be helped by the new Food Loss & Waste Protocol being developed by the World Resources Institute. The protocol is similar in style and purpose to the greenhouse gas reporting protocol and is designed to provide a standard for assessing and reporting food loss and waste.

context_garlic gendarmes

Garlic Gendarmes


Waste is so entrenched in our food systems and there is very little evidence of innovation. This is a potentially huge opportunity for everyone in the supply chain, but especially the packaging, logistics and retail sectors. Perhaps they could learn something from the enthusiasm shown by NGOs and charities working to redistribute the waste created by the poor planning and apathy of those in the food business. Once waste has a big enough dollar sign attached to it, change will come.

How to stop wasting

It’s easy to spot how and where we waste food, but a lot harder to find solutions.

1. Unintended consequences from well-meaning regulation

Fishery permits in the EU limit catches to specific species – everything else in the net has to be thrown back, dead or alive. Perfectly good fish go to waste.

2. Perverse subsidies

Government farm subsidies may help sustain rural communities, but as the European Union discovered, ill-thought out financial aid can create waste and distort markets. Subsidies in the 1980s created wine lakes and butter mountains when the unwanted produce was bought by the EU and stored for later sale (at a loss).

3. Surplus crops

Efficiency is key when planning for unpredictable markets to prevent overproduction. Help can come from unlikely places. Vodafone, the mobile telephony multinational, has helped boost farmers’ efficiency enough to increase agricultural income across their markets, primarily in Africa, India and the Middle East. Text messages and helplines have given farmers access to local weather forecasts, crop prices and guidance on issues such as pest control, sustainable agriculture and resource management.

4. Ugly crops

Up to 40% of fruit and vegetables never make it to our plates because they are blemished or misshapen. But attitudes are changing. French supermarket, Intermarché launched its ‘Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables’ campaign, with other French supermarkets doing the same. A new French law now bans such food waste.

5. Poor storage

Food spoils quickly if poorly stored, often through fungal growth. Syngenta, the Swiss-based crop protection specialist, has devised a fungicide to minimise this in countries like Brazil, Columbia and India.

context_parsnip pile up

Parsnip PIle Up

6. Transport damage and logistics failure

Moving food from farm to fork requires complex and coordinated logistics that protect food in transit. Developing markets that lack the transport infrastructure to keep food fresh have the potential to leapfrog the west and use clean technology. In India where 4% of fresh produce is transported chilled, start-up Promethean Power is helping Indian dairy farmers switch from dirty diesel to solar powered refrigerators.

7. Poor packaging

Packaging gets a bad rap and is often seen as creating waste. But it plays a vital role in protecting food. For example, aseptic carton packaging, such as that made by SIG Combibloc, not only prevents wastage but keeps perishables, such as milk, fresh for months without the need for chilling.

8. Excess stocks at supermarkets and caterers

Inefficiencies at supermarkets and distributors contribute 5% of total food waste across the EU. The UK’s biggest supermarket, Tesco, admits to wasting 30,000 tonnes of edible food in 2014. Tesco has partnered with charity FareShare to distribute surplus food to the needy.

Sodexo, global quality of life services leader, has company-wide initiatives to reduce food waste. With an international focus on reducing hunger and waste, it promotes both source reduction and food donation at source. New tools and resources have been shared across its 33,000 sites in 80 countries to cut food waste in production.

For example, at Sodexo’s 28 campus stores and two dining halls at Northern Arizona University (NAU), all food waste is weighed and tracked. The data has improved planning and cut pre-consumer waste by 46%. Employees safely reuse vegetables, one of their most wasted foods, by making broth and other recipes. What can’t be reused is donated to those in need or composted.

Through a partnership with other campus services, NAU diverts 40,000 pounds of food and green waste from landfill each year. Sodexo shares results like these throughout its network with the knowledge that simple innovations reproduced at scale can make a big impact.

Along with McCain, PepsiCo, SCA, Unilever and WWF, Sodexo is part of the recently launched International Food Waste Coalition, which will advocate for food waste policy solutions within the EU.

context_buy one get two

Buy One Get Two


9. Buy one, waste one

In the USA, 30% of edible food is thrown away each year. Campaigners blame the multiple offers from supermarkets that encourage shoppers to buy more than they need.

10. Using leftovers

IKEA, the home furnishing store, researched food waste in China and Germany, and found that people often forget about food they cannot see. Findings have been used to improve their existing storage containers, like the FÖRTROLIG containers, which help make food more visible.


3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year come from food waste


30% of farmland (1.4bn hectares) is used to grow wasted food


A third of all food we produce is wasted

Why food waste matters


Society views wilful waste of food as immoral. Companies caught wasting food risk their reputations.


Water in the food we waste every year is equivalent to the annual flow of the Volga – Europe’s largest river.

Land use

30% of farmland (1.4bn hectares) is used to grow wasted food.

Climate change

3.3 BILLION tonnes of greenhouse gases a year come from food waste – third only to China and the USA (if food waste were a country).

Tweet this post
Share this post
Share this post
Stay tuned... Context's latest report goes live Feb 3. In it, we reveal how leading companies use #LinkedIn for…
@Context_Group – 2 days ago

We’re a company
with global reach

Want to work with us? Click here to
see our latest job opportunities


55 Greek Street,

View on map
Email: Peter Knight
Email: Kirsten Jack, Business Development +447505 480903
Los Angeles

1601 Vine Street
Los Angeles, CA 90028

View on map
Email: Simon Propper
Email: Lisa Campbell

Want to work with us? Click here to see our latest job opportunities