By Rick WestheadStaff Reporter
The companies that produced the world’s supply of loose-leaf tea had a problem: nearly one-quarter of their product was being thrown out.
Customers, who preferred whole tea leaves to make the perfect cuppa, had no use for the dust or the small bits of leaves known as fannings that came with their purchase.
So engineers came up with a solution: tea bags, which contained the fannings, dust and residue.
That’s the kind of ingenuity the world needs today, according to a new report on food wastagethat concludes roughly half of the four billion tonnes of food produced in the world each year ends up as waste.
The U.K.-based Institution of Mechanical Engineers said that everyone from farmers to supermarket chains to finicky consumers is to blame for all the waste.
“We wanted to recognize this as a problem both in the developed and the developing world and point out that maybe engineers can help reduce the waste, perhaps with better storage and crop-production systems,” said Colin Brown, the organization’s director of engineering.
In Canada and other developed countries, roughly one-third of vegetable crops are rejected because they don’t look appealing enough for supermarket chains, the engineering group said, and nearly half of the food purchased is ultimately tossed in the garbage.
In developing countries in South Asia and Africa, acute food-related problems can be seen in the fields and in the markets.
In India, for instance, as much as 40 per cent of all the fruits, vegetables and food grains never make it to the market. The country wastes more grain each year than Australia produces, and more fruits and vegetables than the U.K. consumes.
“Inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transportation and poor infrastructure mean that produce is frequently handled inappropriately and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions,” the report said.
The main food terminal in New Delhi, for example, is a bustle of activity. On any given day, transport trucks with produce arrive from southern India following a 2,500-kilometre trip. With temperatures approaching 50 C, many of the pineapples, mangoes and other fruits and vegetables tucked into piles of straw in the backs of trucks are tossed aside.
While a better refrigerated transport service would help reduce that spoilage, few companies are willing to invest because of India’s unreliable power supply.
“There’s no question improving things will take capital investment,” Brown said.
Corruption also plays a role. In the Indian village of Fazilka, a small community in western Punjab, three-metre-tall mounds of harvested grain sat in a government holding facility last year. The grain had been left rotting outside on pine palettes, uncovered for at least several years.
A local journalist told the Star during a tour of the facility that an elected official owns a nearby brewery and makes bootleg liquor. Once the grain starts rotting and fermenting, he takes it for free, said Kapil Trikha, a reporter with Day and Night, a Punjabi cable news channel.
Meanwhile, in developed countries including Canada, retailers generate a collective 1.6 million tonnes of food waste each year because they reject crops of edible fruit and vegetables, the report said.
Brown said that trend started after World War II when the baby boomer generation emerged from rationing. “We’re used to eating the nicest looking foods, and when visitors come to your house, having more food than you can eat has become the norm.”
Supermarket chains should be working out ways to “process unattractive produce like spotty tomatoes or bent cucumbers,” Brown said. For example, imperfect potatoes could be diced before sale.
“We need to look at the way we package,” he said. “Why do we use plastics to display fruits and vegetables when we know that plastic causes them to go rotten more quickly?”
Ralph Martin, a professor in the University of Guelph’s plant agriculture department, said many supermarkets want the best looking food “because that’s what customers expect.”
“But one encouraging trend we’re seeing is that customers who are sure their fruits and vegetables are certified organic would rather have the odd blemish than one grown with pesticides,” he said.
While developing countries such as India are plagued by poor roads, Canada’s distribution system could also be improved, said Reg Noble, a food security specialist at Ryerson University.
“Apples will be shipped from Niagara region to a distribution centre maybe 100 kilometres away and then sent back to Niagara to be sold in the supermarket,” Noble said.
As much as half of the food that does reach supermarket shelves is thrown away by customers after the “best before” date is reached, even though the food is often still edible, although it may have lost flavour. Promotional “buy one get one free” offers also encourage consumers to buy more food than they need, which leads to wastage.
The report said seven million tonnes of food, worth more than $16 billion, is thrown away each year, costing the average household $763 per year.
Still, with the world’s population expected to grow from seven billion to 9.5 billion by 2075, according to the United Nations, there are some reasons for optimism.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the report says, Columbia University has worked with farmers to triple the yield of cereal grains to three tonnes per hectare through improved seeds and more efficient use of fertilizers.
Canadian researchers say innovations in the agricultural sector extend beyond dealing with food waste. One University of Guelph professor said Ontario farmers are beginning to experiment with converting cornhusks and wheat straw into pellets that can be sold to coal-fired power plants and used as a fuel source, supplementing coal.
Several professors said more Chinese researchers are also developing innovations to address the food spoilage problem. In August, for instance, a group of Chinese researchers announced a coating for bananas made of crushed shrimp shells. The coating, sprayed on in the form of a thin gel, could keep bananas from ripening for at least two weeks, the researchers said.
• Smaller potatoes: McDonald’s for years has asked its potato producers to grow large tubers for french fries. But that was inefficient because long fries tend to fall apart during processing. “They were getting a lot of waste,” said Ralph Martin of the University of Guelph. McDonald’s has now started accepting more medium-sized tubers.
• Check the back of the fridge: Some waste in Canadian households can be tied to the growing trend of large fridges, Martin said.
“It goes back to the tradition of shopping for food once a week,” he said. “The food gets stuck at the back of the fridge and whatever doesn’t look fresh is tossed. The smaller the fridge, the less waste.”
• Fruit doesn’t have to be perfect: Supermarkets historically place restrictions on tomatoes and other fruits. But a British supermarket chain is experimenting with offering larger and smaller tomatoes for sale at a discount.
“I think the Canadian supermarkets are aware that this may be an area where they might explore but everyone feels a bit vulnerable about being the first,” Martin said.