The virtual water concept helps computing the total amount of water needed for agricultural products and the numbers are overwhelming. However, starting with the pre-harvest stage to the final consumer’s table, food losses occur. The quantity of food losses and waste varies from region to region, but on average it amounts to a staggering one third of the total agricultural products. While food loss is more an issue of inefficiency at the technical and logistics level, food waste is related to a decision taken by me and you to throw food away. All these combined is making it harder to meet the food security goals in the poor regions of the world and by demanding farmers to produce more – even more pressure is added to the already stressed water resources.
Over 70% of fresh water is diverted from rivers or pumped from the underground for use in agriculture. With the increased demand for food we are witnessing a rapid depletion of fresh water resources. As a result of climate change, by 2025 over half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed countries or areas. This, combined with the land degradation, will decrease agricultural production with 30% by 2030, while the increased population will demand 50% more food and energy and 30% more water (UNEP, 2009). Global scale efforts are made to tackle the water scarcity and to ensure food security. And if for a long time all the investments and efforts were directed to the supply side – “how to produce more” – now, a paradigm shift is mandatory and the demand side requires equal attention in order to ensure a sustainable development. One way to address demand is through a better management of food losses and waste. With one third food loss along the food chain there is definitely plenty of space for improvement.
Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) came up with the following comprehensive definition: “Food loss refers to a decrease in mass (dry matter) or nutritional value (quality) of food that was originally intended for human consumption. These losses are mainly caused by inefficiencies in the food supply chains, such as poor infrastructure and logistics, lack of technology, insufficient skills, knowledge and management capacity of supply chain actors, and lack of access to markets. Food waste is the food that is of good quality and fit for human consumption but that does not get consumed because it is discarded—either before or after it spoils. Food waste is the result of negligence or a conscious decision to throw food away.” (FAO, 2013)
Food losses and waste: What and where?
In its food balance sheets FAO indicates food losses and waste by total weight and the final estimate is 1.3 billion tons. Fruits and vegetables amount to 44%, followed by roots and tubers with 20% and cereals with 19%. Meat losses amount to a relatively low 4%. However, for the purposes of computing the impact on water resources it is important to keep in mind that it takes over 5500 l to produce one kg of meat and about 750l for one kg of wheat. For 2007, the global blue water footprint was estimated at 250 km3, which in volume equals the annual discharge of Volga river (FAO, 2011).
Food losses and waste are a common thing in both, developed and developing countries, but the pattern is different. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), developed countries are managing better the pre-harvest operations and have reduced losses at this stage, while the developing countries are losing 26% to 40% because of rodents, insects and poor storage facilities. Developed countries are again better when it comes to harvesting and processing the agricultural products along the value chain up to retail. The final consumption losses is where developing countries perform better with 0-10% losses, while the developed countries consumers waste 3-40% of their food (World Economic Forum, 2013). As an overall result, the upstream - pre-harvest, post-harvest and storage - stages amount for 54% and downstream – retail chain and final consumer - for 46% of food losses and wastage.
This distribution map of inefficiencies is helpful in showing where investments will pay highest returns. Improving the harvesting techniques and storage technologies would have highest returns in developing countries. Dealing with consumption behavior in countries like US or UK will greatly impact food wastages. And if for improving infrastructure and equipment higher investments might be required, then changing wasteful behavior could be integrated within the education system at almost no extra cost, but it is a long term challenge.
Potential rewards of reducing the food loss and waste
Along with the modern irrigation techniques for a more efficient water use and development of alternative water resources, reducing food loss and wastage has great potential benefits for saving water. It is being estimated that to meet the food demand of 2050 agricultural output will have to increase by 60%. (FAO, 2013) In actual conditions of climate change and growing water scarcity that seems an impossible goal and this is why it is mandatory to employ every bit of potential available. Besides the positive impact on fresh water resources, an improved food management would lower the pressure on land, biodiversity and decrease the total output of CO2 emissions related to agriculture.
Obstacles and possible solutions
Small farmers cannot afford all the modern harvesting and storage equipment and this is why they need external support in order to reduce their food losses. Starting at the institutional level, implementation of sound policies which will make their products competitive in the market is the first step (Lundqvist, 2008). It happens sometimes that the market price of a specific product is so low that the farmer does not even want to spend extra on harvest labor and lets the food rot on the field. Along with the climate, the rainfall pattern is changing as well and drought is even more likely to happen in drought prone regions. Assistance in implementing the low cost rain water harvesting techniques for supplemental irrigation makes a huge difference, since a onetime irrigation can save the entire harvest. Drying techniques for fruits or adequate storage facilities are highly relevant for most of the farmers in the developing countries.
The industry of food processing and supply needs benchmarking standards set in place for businesses to follow and adapt the good practices of similar entities in reducing the food losses. Also, there are industries which could use less water for food processing and then advertising their efficient practices would raise awareness about the need to save water at every phase of the value chain. Improving packaging to make the products last longer is another tool for manufactures to use.
At the retail and distribution stage food labeling can be quite confusing sometimes. “Use-by”, “Best-before” and “Sell-by” are just a few wording examples which lead consumers to throw away good for consumption food. The removal of the “Sell-by” and uniformity of food labeling proved to be efficient practices in reducing the food waste in the UK. Another efficient tool is printing directly on the consumers bags advices on how to preserve specific foods longer. Governments play a key role in implementing such policies across the sector. (Brian Lipinski, 2013)
At the end of the value chain is the consumer who is responsible for up to 40% food waste in the developed countries. Raising awareness and explaining the virtual water concept to the public would help to better understand the magnitude of water usage at household level. Reduced portion size in restaurants would prevent overeating and leftovers which are thrown away. All you can eat restaurants are encouraging overeating having a set fixed price, but at least food waste can be prevented with additional pricing tools. For example, charging the customers extra for the leftovers was proved to positively influence the way people load their trays. There are other efficient practices which is why it is important to establish a knowledge hub, available for businesses and general public, to adapt and share good practices.
Facilitating donations of foods would reduce food losses and waste along the entire value chain. The main obstacle for a farmer to give the surplus food away is the proximity of food banks. It is not economically sound for him to pay for the transportation of donated goods, considering the losses already occurred for the not sold products. Food manufacturers may face legal complications if their donated products are the cause of health issues. NGOs can help overcome the logistics issues, by collecting the food available for donation and governments may lessen on the regulation for donated food. Tax incentives would be another enabling tool for large businesses to take the extra step (Brian Lipinski, 2013).
There are many other similar issues and respectively, ways to tackle the inefficiencies along the food value chain to considerably reduce the water losses. Achievable targets must be set at the global, regional, national and local levels. Consistent monitoring and evaluation of adopted practices would help improve and adjust for even a better performance. As a sub-division of the ministry of agriculture, governments could create special entities which would deal specifically with food losses and wastage. Only by combining efforts of all stakeholders can a sustainable future be achieved.
Brian Lipinski, C. H. J. L. L. K. R. W. a. T. S., 2013. Reducing Food Loss and Waste, Washington: s.n.
FAO, 2011. Food Balance Sheets, s.l.: s.n.
FAO, 2013. Food Wastage Footprin: Impact on natural resources., s.l.: s.n.
Lundqvist, J. C. d. F. a. D. M., 2008. Saving Water: From Field to Fork – Curbing Losses and Wastage in the Food Chain, Huddinge, Sweden: s.n.
UNEP, 2009. The Environmental Food Crisis, s.l.: s.n.
World Economic Forum, 2013. Driving Sustainable Consumption. Value chain consumption.. s.l., s.n.