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SDGs Food Loss and Waste

A brief history of food loss

Our present is a product of the past. This blog series begins with a brief history on food loss and food waste: how did humans come to create a yearly food loss phenomenon of 1.3 billion tons per year (⅓ of all food produced)? 

Food loss and food waste are two often used terms, the definition as given by the United Nations:

Food loss: Decrease in quality (nutritional value) of food that was originally produced for human consumption.

Food waste: Food appropriate for human consumption being discarded, whether after it is left to spoil or kept beyond its expiry date.

Food Loss and Waste (FLW) as depicted in the image below, refers to the combination of both.

FLW is a peculiar thing, as still over 800 million people are undernourished, ⅓ of all produce does not end up as food. In turn, the FLW is responsible for ~8% of global warming – predominantly caused by methane that is emitted when food rots. In this equation the environmental impact on animals, insects and soil because of land usage is not even taken into account. By putting the historical events on a timeline we can get a better understanding of how we got to this point and which different factors – up to this day – play a role in the food loss and waste. Conservation techniques, consumerism, capitalism, world exploration and the everlasting quest for growth come forward.

12.000 BC: First large food conservation techniques

12.000 BC: First large food conservation techniques

Historical research shows that humans around the Dead Sea of Jordan were the first in the world to develop systematic large-scale food storage. In the Early Natufian period (12.000 BC), people used a remarkably wide range of wild plants and animals, lived in relatively large well-made semi subterranean buildings for most of the year, and undoubtedly had a detailed knowledge of the seasonality and availability of these resources. [Kluijt (2009)]

10.000 BC: food surpluses in the First Agricultural Revolution

10.000 BC: food surpluses in the First Agricultural Revolution

The transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural activities is called the Neolithic Revolution. Once early farmers perfected their agricultural techniques like irrigation, their crops yielded surpluses that needed storage. Most hunter-gatherers could not easily store food for long due to their migratory lifestyle, whereas those with a sedentary dwelling could store their surplus grain. Eventually granaries were developed that allowed villages to store their seeds longer. So with more food, the population expanded and communities developed specialised workers and more advanced tools. [Wiki Neolithic Period, 2020]

500 AD: First agricultural revolution as stepping stone for population growth

500 AD: First agricultural revolution as stepping stone for population growth

The population has not seen a steep increase after the first agricultural revolution. According to literature, it is likely that little food surpluses existed, as many of the produce production was for local consumption and local trade. This started to change from the middle ages onward until the real turning point in the 16th century. [United Nations, 2019]

500 – 1500: open field system, the rise of capitalism and private land ownership

500 – 1500: open field system, the rise of capitalism and private land ownership

In medieval times, little land was owned outright. Instead, generally the lord had rights given to him by the king, and the tenant rented land from the lord. Lords demanded rents and labour from the tenants, but the tenants had firm user rights to cropland and common land and those rights were passed down from generation to generation. The rise of capitalism and the concept of land as a commodity to be bought and sold led to the gradual demise of the open-field system. The open-field system was gradually replaced over several centuries by private ownership of land, especially after the 15th century. [Wiki open field system, 2020]

1500: Exploration of the world and cultivation by Europeans

1500: Exploration of the world and cultivation by Europeans

In parallel with establishing world wide trade – which picked up a real pace with the VOC in the beginning of the 17th century – agricultural innovations had a great impact on farming. Farming without fallow periods (continuous production) was gradually developed and introduced, thereby accelerating food production. In literature you can find information on (structural) food surpluses from the 17th century onward however, the farmers were no longer bound to local markets which freed them from lowering their prices or even discarding produce. [Alementarium, 2018]

1810: invention of canning and storage

1810: invention of canning and storage

Napoleon Bonaparte offered a reward for whoever came up with a way to store and conserve food supplies for his army during campaigns. The process of canning was first invented by a Frenchman named Nicolas Appert. While it took almost 100 years of conservation by means of tin canning became popular, the invention stood at the beginning of mass food preservation. [Wiki Nicolas Appert 2020]

1900: industrial revolution

1900: industrial revolution

Families begin wasting more food as it continues to cost less and be more easily available due to industrialisation. Because food was often produced in other areas than in the family yard, overproduction received little attention because it was of out-of-sight, out-of-mind. At the same time, diseases begins to spread in large cities due to the lack of clean and organised waste removal; public health officials begin realising the importance of proper food waste disposal and the threat of a serious health problem posed by disposing food in the streets. The late 1800s begin seeing the first garbage delivery wagons.

1930; rise of (home) refrigeration

1930; rise of (home) refrigeration

Perishable produce – such as lettuce, tomato and cucumber – stayed fresh way longer when they were stored in a cold environment. The invention of refrigerated transport (by train) and home refrigeration gave many people access to fresh and nutritious food. At the same time, the home refrigerator contributed to lesser food waste, as leftovers could be stored longer.

1950: Post war agriculture and consumerism

1950: Post war agriculture and consumerism

Since the 1950s, agriculture had oriented itself to ever higher levels of production. This had seduced farmers into extreme specialisations with consequences for the environment, both domestically and elsewhere. Mechanisation, rationalisation and the structural policies of the government led to an increase in yields per hectare and per farm. Agricultural organisations and the government were happy bedfellows and aimed at increased production and the stimulation of export. The problem of surpluses was accepted as a given. Throughout the 1970s Dutch agriculture for example, was oriented entirely to compete with the other member states of the European Community. [Veraart, 2018]

1990: modern era & climate change

1990: modern era & climate change

While an early majority of the climate researchers are ringing the alarm bells about global warming and its implications, there is still limited data and knowledge on how food contributes to the problem.

2013: first study on impact of food waste and loss on climate change

2013: first study on impact of food waste and loss on climate change

“Without accounting for GHG emissions from land use change, the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten is estimated to 3.3 Gtonnes of CO2 equivalent: as such, food wastage ranks as the third top emitter after USA and China. Produced but uneaten food vainly occupies almost 1.4 billion hectares of land; this represents close to 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land area. While it is difficult to estimate impacts on biodiversity at a global level, food wastage unduly compounds the negative externalities that monocropping and agriculture expansion into wild areas create on biodiversity loss, including mammals, birds, fish and amphibians.” [FAO UN, 2013]

It is apparent that the evolution of our civilisation led to all kinds of externalities that brought us to the point where we are now: 30% of all produce is lost somewhere in the value chain. The short summary of the history of food production leaves me with a question. For consumers FLW can be explained by the out of sight, out of mind principle: I don’t see the waste, so I’m not part of the waste. But how come we know about so few companies that buy surplus production and use conservation techniques such as freezing or drying (or freeze drying) to conserve produce for later sales? Is it mere an issue of consumer behaviour or is it more complicated?