Food waste in a pandemic

Food waste in a pandemic

May 08, 2020

Food waste in a pandemic

Changing habits and travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic are also having a huge impact on global food waste and loss.

Closed bars and restaurants, people forced to stay at home by the lockdown and restrictions on trade are drastically changing the eating habits of the world population and the systems used to produce and sell food. From multinational giants to small farmers in developing countries, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a clearly visible and, unfortunately, in many cases negative effect, on one of the paradoxes of the modern food system: the loss and waste of food. An issue to be examined even more closely in the coronavirus era, in light of the current figures for waste, with 33% of all food produced being lost or thrown away every year. 

Impact on producers

Farmers in Ohio and Wisconsin throwing away thousands of liters of milk, an Idaho farmer digging a huge pit to dispose of half a ton of onions, tractors in South Florida used to plow the soil and bury beans and cabbage that no one wants. Thus begins an article in the New York Times on the crisis linked to the COVID-19 pandemic among US producers who have already been forced to destroy dozens of tons of food left unsold due to the closure of schools and bars/restaurants. This is what FAO defines as food loss, an aspect of food waste that is generally more widespread in developing countries, but which is also affecting developed countries in the current pandemic. To overcome the problem and limit waste, many producers are donating unsold goods to humanitarian associations, which are increasingly swamped with requests from poor people, but even this is a only partial solution given the limited number of refrigerators to store the products and volunteers to deliver them. Nor can international trade come to the rescue when customers across the border are struggling with the pandemic and price fluctuations make it impractical in some cases to resort to exports. 

From donation to planning

Addressing this new crisis is not easy, but there is no lack of initiatives, as stated in an article published by Food Tank, a US non-profit organization founded in 2013, with which the Barilla Foundation has had a strong partnership for many years

They range from the most “traditional” donation to support associations for the most needy, to software to limit waste in supermarkets, including the use of unsold products to obtain energy or organic compounds to be used for food packaging or in agriculture.

Finally there is no shortage of fundraisers, such as the one run by ReFED, an organization that analyzes solutions to combat food waste and that is working to avoid waste and bring food to those who need it through the recently launched COVID-19 Food Waste Solutions Fund.

How the approach to consumption is changing

At the beginning there was talk of “panic buying”, i.e. people rushing to buy any type of goods - food and non-food - that might be of assistant or comfort during the pandemic. Government appeals to avoid this type of behavior which, in Western countries, resulted in completely empty supermarket shelves and refrigerators and unnecessarily full house pantries, were not enough. This accumulation of food meant that, at least in the very early stages of the pandemic, food waste linked to home consumption, which was quite high even before the coronavirus emergency, increased further. “Britons have hoarded food worth £1billion during the past fortnight, with loaves of bread, bunches of bananas and unopened packs of chicken products tossed aside after going past their use-by date” wrote Sam Hinton of the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) in the journal Circular at the beginning of April. 

It is also important to emphasize, however, that in some cases the pandemic has changed consumer habits for the better, leading to a reduction in food waste in non-western countries. According to an article recently published in Environment, Development and Sustainability, it seems for example that in Tunisia the lockdown linked to the pandemic has improved consumer behavior towards food waste. In fact 85% of the study participants said they did not throw away anything they bought and most respondents had implemented strategies to save, store and consume leftovers. “This different attitude towards food waste seems more tied to the socio-economic context created by COVID-19 than to a pro-environment attitude” the authors of the research declare honestly. 

The fact remains that the rediscovery of some new and homemade food and greater focus on planning meals, resulting from the closure of bars and restaurants and restrictions on movement, might remain even after the pandemic, thus helping to reduce waste at home. 

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