Food loss and waste: Tackling one of humanity’s largest sustainability issues

It is on the agenda of many inter-governmental agencies, governments, NGOs and leading food and nutrition companies. It has been reported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to have a greenhouse-gas footprint the size of a nation – third only to that of the USA and China and representing 8% of the world’s emissions. It is a topic more familiar to the general public than many other food sustainability issues – something we all take home with us, which plays a very tangible role in our daily lives. It is a problem to which we all contribute. And it is an area where we can all make a difference by helping to reduce the tremendous amount of waste we produce, along with its associated environmental footprint. Considering the debate on the environmental cost of animal protein production, it is vitally important also to consider ways of reducing loss and waste of this valuable protein source.

Dr. David Nickell, Vice President Sustainability at DSM Nutritional Products, Animal Nutrition & Health, outlines DSM’s approach to reducing food loss and waste in the animal protein sector.

Reducing food loss and waste is an integral part of sustainable animal production

With the heightened awareness of the environmental cost of our food and the conundrum of how to feed a global population projected to reach 9.7bn by 2050 while even today having to drastically reduce our food footprint, many people around the world have focused on reducing their intake of animal protein and shifting dietary habits to a more flexitarian approach. However, many populations are not reducing their animal protein intake, but rather the opposite. Whether through overconsumption or through greater affluence and the desire for more complete, balanced nutrition, demand for animal protein is set to continue to rise. For these reasons, animal protein production in the form of meat, milk, fish and eggs is expected to grow by 70% from now until 2050. Considerable attention and resources are currently being directed at making animal production more efficient and sustainable, especially in terms of land use, water use, nutrient cycles, greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and the impact on biodiversity. However, the focus should not be solely on production. There is no single action that will lead to sustainable food systems, but it is recognized by many that tackling food loss and waste along the value chain is a critically necessary intervention. Responsibility in this matter also lies with consumers: we are all part of this issue. It is estimated that on a global level, 30% of all calories produced worldwide are lost in production, while a further 30% are also wasted at consumer level.

Estimates of loss and waste

Understanding and estimating the scale of the food loss and waste issue is not easy. There is a general lack of data across many food systems, and reporting is incomplete and lacking a common methodology for measurement. The World Resources Institute (WRI) has published an estimate of 1.3bn tons of food loss and waste per year, which represents 1.5 quadrillion calories (or about one quarter of the world’s food calories), composed of various food groups. Considering the global calorie gap – the estimated 56% more food calories that will be required between 2010 and 2050 to feed a projected 9.7bn people – this current estimate of calories lost or wasted exemplifies the inefficiencies of our current food systems. The degree of loss and waste varies by geography and stage of the value chain. For example, it is reported by the WRI that 17% of all calories produced in North America and Oceania are lost in production, while 61% are wasted at the consumer level, and in overall terms it is estimated that 42% of all available food is lost or wasted. This contrasts starkly with South and Southeast Asia, where 32% and 13% are lost and wasted in production and at the consumer level respectively, while overall 17% of total available food is lost or wasted. Nevertheless, the numbers remain high, and action is needed along the value chain from production through to consumption to help stem food loss and waste.

Note: Numbers may not sum to 100 due to rounding. Source: WRI analysis based on FAO 2011.

It is reported that we do not lack sufficient calories on a global scale to feed the world’s growing population, but rather that the calories produced are not equitably distributed and not readily accessible to all, as evidenced by overconsumption on the part of 2 billion people while 800 million remain undernourished. The picture is further complicated since it is not only about calories. Protein, fat and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and amino acids) are key constituents of healthy, balanced nutrition. Again, in theory we have enough protein and fat in the world to exceed the recommended average daily intake (although the quality varies) – but like calories, these nutrients are unequally distributed around the world or else they are lost in production, through handling, food processing, distribution, wasted at retail and consumer level, or else used in other industrial processes. A similar picture is apparent for micronutrients. Such loss of micronutrition is especially important in respect of hidden hunger – which affects an estimated 2 billion people worldwide. Meat and dairy products are a critical source of certain micronutrients, such as vitamin A, the B vitamins, calcium, zinc, iron, folate and lysine, and therefore ensuring availability is key to providing balanced, healthy nutrition for all.

The drive to counter this loss of nutrition, reduce the environmental cost of food loss and waste and make our food systems more sustainable is being translated into action through various initiatives developed along the various food chains, and is principally led by industry, ahead of governments. These initiatives aim to improve and shorten supply chains, ameliorate storage conditions and capacity, and augment food packaging, including date labeling and the requisite associated consumer awareness campaigns. 

It is recognized that animal protein is a key part of healthy, balanced nutrition and that it is also essential for the provision of key micronutrients. However, considering the efficiency boundaries of animal production, it is essential that we ensure we do not lose or waste such a precious resource. Such data as is available shows that out of the total global calorie loss, animal protein represents 12%, with the remaining 88% related to fruit and vegetables, grains, pulses and tubers. Within these figures, the loss and waste rates for animal protein vary depending on the particular food type, with FAO reporting meat and milk at 20%, while for fish it is estimated at 35%. One way of reducing these losses is through specific nutritional intervention during the animal production period.

Nutritional intervention reduces food loss and waste 

Milk is a very affordable and accessible source of protein, fat and micronutrients, with over 6 billion people, or 80% of the world’s population, consuming dairy products in one form or another. However, loss of milk does occur along the value chain, as a result of issues in production (at the one end) and spoilage and wastage during processing, transport and consumption (at the other). At the production end of the value chain, issues related to cow health can be the major cause of milk loss. These include spoilage on farm, excessively high somatic cell count, or the incidence of clinical mastitis. The frequency of clinical mastitis in high-producing dairy cows can vary from 4% to 25% and often requires veterinarian intervention with an antibiotic treatment. However, following treatment, there is a five-day withdrawal period to ensure there are no residual antibiotic traces in the milk. During this period, a cow will continue to produce milk which has to be discarded: it is not allowed to enter the food chain. The scale of loss can be considerable. An example based on a herd of 1 million cows producing 30kg per head per day and having a 25% frequency of clinical mastitis means that approximately 37.5 million liters of milk have to be discarded each year. This is loss on a tremendous scale, and it could be reduced by 50% through nutritional intervention with an optimized vitamin nutrition program, paying particular attention to plasma vitamin E levels during the post-calving period, when the vitamin status of the cow may be compromised. Vitamin E is a natural antioxidant. It plays a vital role in improving the cow’s immune response time and helps extend the lifetime of the critical immune cells which fight the bacteria that cause mastitis. Not only is this a good way of reducing food loss; it also helps reduce the amount of antibiotics used in dairy production.

Improving the integral quality of animal protein

Feeding animals with an optimum vitamin nutrition program during their lifetime also improves the quality and shelf-life of meat and helps reduce loss and wastage. Again, vitamin E plays a pivotal role in this respect. It is a natural antioxidant and is deposited in the muscle cell membranes. Through its action, it increases the robustness and lifespan of the muscle cells prior to the natural breakdown process. The effect is evident in terms of reduced drip loss (moisture in the packaging), reduced off-flavors, and reduced off color. Feeding swine and poultry the correct vitamin nutrition throughout their lifetime results in higher meat quality and an extended shelf-life of 3–6 days when fresh, or 2–3 months in the case of frozen products. Moreover, the onset of off-flavors is delayed by 8–9 days following storage. This improvement in meat quality is also evident in beef, especially with respect to the color, with the meat retaining its fresh appearance for an extended time, making it more appetizing to the consumer – an important consideration, since a proportion of waste is due to an over-emphasis on appearance. Extending the shelf-life of meat through such nutritional intervention during the animal’s growth is a very important and practical step in reducing food loss and particularly food waste at the consumer end of the value chain. 

Another example of reducing food loss and waste relates to vitamin D and eggs. Eggs are an efficient protein source, having generally the lowest environmental footprint per unit of protein compared to other forms of animal production. Moreover, eggs are a good form of affordable and accessible nutrition for many people across the world. This is evident in the tremendous demand for eggs and the current growth of this particular sector of animal production. A modern hen will lay one egg per day for up to 100 weeks. Critical to this process is the availability of minerals for the formation of the shell, and this is heavily dependent on the bird’s skeletal development and mineral status. Egg shell breakage and subsequent loss is an issue for the egg value chain, and the rates of loss can vary by geography and complexity of the supply chain. Vitamin D, and especially the more bio-active form supplied in the form of Rovimix® HyD® to hens throughout their lifetime, improves skeletal development and mineral balance, leading to significantly stronger eggshells that are more robust, which in turn leads to fewer breakages and less  loss. Feeding HyD® as part of an optimized nutrition program increases egg shell thickness by 4% and reduces breakages by 15%. 

Such nutritional intervention is easy and very practical to achieve, and results in significant improvements in meat, milk, fish and egg quality. Improving the inherent quality of produce reduces the rates of food loss and waste as well as improving the nutritional density of the food, and helps make food system more sustainable.

Innovating for change

DSM recognizes food loss and waste as a major sustainability issue and has signed up to the UN Sustainability Development Goal 12.3, which has set a target of a 50% reduction in food loss and waste by 2030. Through our innovative nutritional programs in animal production, we are able to make tangible, measurable impacts on reducing food loss and waste along the value chain. Making change happen will require further innovations in product development and value chain solutions, which means working together in broad coalitions and novel partnerships, whether in the private or the public sector. An example of this is the recently held ‘Designing out Food Loss & Waste’ meeting facilitated by DSM and Cargill, in which the EU Commission, WRI, WWF and leading food companies participated. Here we sought to raise the wider community’s awareness of the impact of nutritional programs in animal production – the early stages of the food chain – that can lead to significant reductions in food loss and waste. Making these innovations known to the wider community will equip the multiple players in the food chain with a wealth of tangible solutions that they can employ to help reduce food loss and waste, while improving the sustainability of food systems and ensuring affordable, accessible nutrition for all. Through our efforts we are addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals 2 and 12.

Science-based animal nutrition solutions 

DSM exists to create brighter lives for all. This starts with our customers, without whom we would not have a business. We offer them the world’s most comprehensive, science-based animal nutrition solutions, intelligently scaled to solve the sustainability and commercial challenges we all face in transforming the way we feed the world.

The world needs new pathways in sustainable animal protein, and DSM is at the forefront of that quest.

Published on

21 June 2019


  • Vitamins
  • Ruminants


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