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EEA Signals 2014 – Well-being and the environment

From production to waste: the food system

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Article Published 02 Jun 2014 Last modified 05 Nov 2021
5 min read
Photo: © Gülcin Karadeniz
We are using more and more of natural resources due to population growth, lifestyle changes and increasing personal consumption. To tackle our unsustainable consumption, we need to address the entire resource system, including production methods, demand patterns and supply chains. We take a closer look at food.

The food system, in general terms, includes all the materials, processes and infrastructures relating to agriculture, trade, retail, transport and consumption of food products. Like water and energy, food is a basic human need. In addition to being available, food needs to be of high quality, diverse, accessible, safe for consumption and affordable. There is also a strong link between our health and well-being and food. Both malnutrition and obesity are health problems directly linked to the way we produce, market and consume our food.

Europeans’ food consumption has changed considerably over time. For example, compared to 50 years ago, we eat more than twice as much meat per person. But also, since 1995, beef consumption per person has declined by 10 %. At the same time, Europeans are eating more poultry, fish and seafood, fruits and vegetables.

The EU is one of the biggest food producers in the world. It employs modern agricultural production systems and has land suitable for agriculture. Productivity per hectare has gone up considerably, particularly in the second half of the 20th century. Given its diversity of agricultural land and climates, Europe produces a wide range of products. But it also relies on imports to meet its demand for food.

Agricultural productivity, in terms of crop yield, has increased owing to growing monoculture (i.e. producing the same crop in larger areas) and irrigation, better machines, and more chemical inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers. This intensification has allowed Europe to use less land to produce more food.

However, these modes of production have not been without their environmental costs. Intensification in this manner exerts higher pressures on the environment, resulting in higher nitrogen pollution and CO2 emissions, greater biodiversity loss in farmlands and contamination of soil, rivers and lakes. Furthermore, increasing the use of external inputs in order to obtain higher yields in food production often decreases its overall energy efficiency. That is, when we invest even more energy to produce food, we actually get less and less energy (calories) out in terms of actual food energy provided to society.

Waste bags

(c) Gülcin Karadeniz

Sustainable and productive

It is clear that Europe needs to reduce the environmental impacts of agricultural production. And at the same time, Europe needs to continue producing similar amounts of food to meet the demand both in the EU and globally.

The EU is one of the largest food producers and exporters in the world. Any significant reduction in its output would affect global production and consequently food prices. How can Europe continue producing high quality food in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices, while reducing the environmental impacts of agriculture?

Adopting more sustainable farming practices can help. For example, agro-ecological methods offer a means of intensifying agriculture without synthetic chemical inputs (i.e. fertilisers and pesticides) by utilising natural products and leveraging ecological processes in its production. Precision farming techniques offer the means to reduce the use of chemical and hence some of the environmental impacts.

Regardless of the method, food production needs to remain sufficiently intensive so that productivity keeps up with food demands. In this way, land use and biodiversity will not become further compromised.

Moreover, in many regions, agriculture is the main source of income for local communities, not to mention being part of the social fabric and the local culture. Any measures aiming to improve the food system would have to take such social aspects into account.

Measures only targeting the production side would fall short of ‘greening’ the entire food system. Nevertheless, additional efficiency gains are needed at other stages, such as transport, retail and consumption. A dietary shift from less meat towards more vegetables would ease the pressure on land use.

Before reaching our plates, food needs to be produced, processed, packaged, transported and distributed. Every step uses up resources and generates more waste and pollution.

Food waste

In Europe, it is estimated that about one third of the food produced in Europe is not consumed and waste occurs at all stages of the chain. The European Commission estimates that in the EU alone 90 million tonnes of food (or 180 kg per person) are wasted, much of which is still suitable for human consumption. Food waste is identified as one of the areas to tackle in the EU’s Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe.

Many of us try to reduce the amount of food we throw away at home. One way is to try to prepare just the right amount of food for dinner — not too much; not too little. Another way is to be creative with the leftovers from the day before. Yet, no matter how hard we try, some food is inevitably thrown away: fruits rot and milk sours. Food waste from households represents only a fraction of the total amount of food we waste. Large amounts of food have already been wasted before ever reaching our refrigerators.

With regards to how much food is wasted at various stages, there are no EU-wide estimates. Reliable and comparable data does not exist, especially for food waste generated in agricultural production and fisheries. However, some country-specific analyses are available.

Food waste analysis in Sweden

According to a study by the Swedish Environment Protection Agency, in 2012 Swedes wasted 127 kg of food per person. This estimate does not include the food wasted in the production phase (agriculture and fishing) and the inevitable food waste from the food processing industry.

Of this amount, 81 kg per person was generated in households. Restaurants generated 15 kg per person, supermarkets 7 kg per person and catering facilities 6 kg per person. The Swedish study also estimated how much of this food waste was ‘unnecessary’. The findings point to areas of potential gains: 91 % of the food waste generated in supermarkets, 62 % in restaurants, 52 % in catering facilities and 35 % in households were qualified as unnecessary.

Some food waste occurs as part of the attempt to ensure compliance with existing legislation protecting public health and consumers. Contaminated meat taken off the shelves is a waste of resources, but it is also a preventive measure necessary to safeguard human health.

Other measures are less straightforward. For example, the ‘best before’ dates on food products do not necessarily mean that the product goes bad from one day to the next but that its quality decreases from that point forward. That is, some products are still safe to be consumed after the date displayed, but retailers cannot sell them, consumers do not buy them. Meeting consumer expectations (for example regarding ample choice and full shelves, or aesthetics) can also drive food waste at the retail phase.

The fate of unsold food depends on waste management practices. It might be used as fodder, composted or recovered as energy, or end up in landfills.

Around one third of the food produced globally is lost or wasted. Food waste represents a substantial loss of other resources such as land, water, energy and labour.

One system’s gain is also another’s gain

Every time we waste food, we are also wasting the land, the water, the energy and all the other inputs used to create the food we are not consuming. Therefore, any decrease in food waste actually means potential gains for the environment. If we reduce the amount of food we waste throughout the food system, we will need less water, less fertiliser, less land, less transport, less energy, less waste collection, less recycling and so on.

To put this in the broader context of green economy, increasing resource efficiency in one system helps reduce resource use in other systems. It is almost always a win‑win scenario.


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