Beyond the Numbers of the Biggest Food Wasters: Households and Agriculture
Text by Martina Kroa.
What are the causes of food waste? How come? How big of a problem is it? Who is to blame? What can be done? The story uncovers data, food waste in agriculture through the eyes of farmers, experts, and volunteers saving excess food, and a recently published and ongoing unique Czech research on household waste in three series. Title photo: stock image.
Czech Rep, Sep 29, (BD) – When talking to people, they usually say they don’t waste as much, younger people say about their older relatives that they waste food because “the fridge needs to be always full”. Then there is the second group of people that hate wasting food because they realize its value. Those people see the causes of wasting food in the fact that we don’t appreciate foods worth, we are disconnected from it, it is cheap, and they mention that subsidies play a role or that we are lazy. What do the data tell us?
A Food Waste series
1. The Threatening Data: What do the big reports about food waste tell us
2. Agriculture Loss or Waste?: Waste of resources (water, energy) or nutrition for the soil?
3. Households: The biggest food wasters just need to wake up!“People don’t realize it’s a problem and not to waste food isn’t as common as recycling yet.” How much and what ends up in the garbage can of a Czech person?
One third of the food on the planet gets wasted, articles threaten us, but never elaborate or explain why. This number comes from the 2011 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) report about food waste accounting the whole food cycle. Despite assumptions that restaurants, canteens, or supermarkets might be leading the unpopular chart, the biggest food wasters are in fact households, seconded by agriculture. Supermarkets and restaurants are under the microscope and their food waste management has been improving due to implemented policies and practices.
The 2021 UN Food Waste Index Report focusing on the second part of the food chain (retail and households) validates that households waste the most, covering 61% according to the study. Those numbers alarm even more when told that the quantity of food wasted could feed the starving part of the world three or four times.
Food waste in agriculture has been said to be a neglected topic according to the 2021 World Wildlife Fund and Tesco Driven to Waste report focusing on food waste and loss on farms and says that over 15% of food gets wasted on farms, and they estimate that if they accounted the whole food chain, 40% of all food would get wasted. This study unlike others (FAO reports) doesn’t distinguish between food loss and waste and sees food waste as any outputs that were intended and suitable for human consumption “but which end up either not being harvested or sent to one of a range of food waste destinations”.
On the other hand the 2019 UN FAO The State of Food and Agriculture report says “although there may be an economic loss, food diverted to other economic uses, such as animal feed, is not considered as quantitative food loss or waste,“ as well as “inedible parts are not considered as food loss or waste”.
Both the 2019 and the 2021 FAO reports highly recommend measuring food waste and loss and increasing measuring efforts in order to have a baseline for future steps. The 2021 report brings a methodology for countries on how to measure food waste because the robust data is missing and the “Global estimates of food waste have relied on extrapolation of data from a small number of countries, often using old data,” according to the report.
Although the data from the EU Fusions report that estimates European food waste levels concludes households waste the most, it admits that it is hard to combine various food waste data from different countries as it is measured and considered differently and also believes in better data for the future.
How big of a problem is food waste? In the foreword of the 2021 report the Executive Director Inger Andersen starts with “If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.” Food waste is intertwined with environmental & economic & social impacts, and food security making it no easy topic to tackle.
“The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted (250 km3) is equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva,” according to the 2013 FAO Food wastage footprint report. The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 12.3 calls for halving per capita global food waste by 2030 and on September the 23rd UN hosts the first Food Systems Summit.
Taking a beautifully grown and also tasty carrot out of the soil while the last sun rays blind my eyes, learning it simply didn’t find a market. And there are rows of those in front of me. Food waste or nutrition for the soil? And who is to blame?
In the Czech Republic, DobroPolníci is one of the few volunteer groups saving ‘lost’ crops in the farming sector. They glean fruits and vegetables that are left on the fields after harvest. Gleaning is the practice of collecting fruits and vegetables after commercial or profitable harvest, in the past by the poor, with mentions as far as the Bible.
The group of volunteers gather at a parking spot in Prague and then with two or three cars carpool to a field or orchard outside of the city. After roughly four hours of gleaning on three different fields, the eight of us packed a full car of about 850 kg of potatoes, parsley roots & leaves and carrots. And that was just a fraction of what was left on the “written off” field. Depends on the season and the farmer, but sometimes they go for kohlrabi, onions, radishes, pumpkins, or fruits and usually glean roughly this amount.
Talking with a strong Ukrainian accent, Kolja, an employee of the farm showed us where we can glean at. He explained that the carrots were ordered by various supermarkets and what was left on the field didn’t find a market. “What else should we do with it?” he waved it off while driving a smudged car.
The potatoes gleaned were just being harvested and men from the combine harvester threw out the ones that were too small, too big or crushed by the machine. The parsley was simply too small to be sold or bought, but otherwise splendid. “There would be nothing left if you wanted to scrape the parsley, that’s why nobody would buy it,” one of the volunteers said. And the carrots were perfectly fine, fully grown, and beautiful, but simply didn’t find a market.
After Zachraň jídlo, an organization advocating for reducing food waste in Czechia, started gleaning in the country, two sisters Katka and Klára Peřinovy took it over last year and now organize the volunteers. In their first year they managed to glean 10 tons of fruits and veggies. It caught Andrea Králová, a first-time gleaning volunteer, by surprise that there were just a few of us volunteering and that it was “a normal group of people, not outright activists”. Klára said that they don’t want more as it would be too many cars & people to organize. DobroPolníci aren’t really big on media coverage either, they want to keep it the way it is: low-key and modest.
Before coming, I was asked not to take pictures as the ties with the farmers are sensitive and fragile. “A lot of the people think that we just come to a field, but we always arrange with the farmer ahead of time,” says Klára explaining that people then think they can come on their own and just glean vegetables, but it doesn’t work that way. “We want to warn them not to do that. That’s why we always want to come together.”
Why aren’t there more initiatives saving vegetables from the fields? Klára explained to me that it is changing: “the farmers always had loss, but now they are willing to share it. Sometimes the farmers themselves call us.” She adds, “our farmers are righteous, they try to harvest and deliver, but it really depends on the weather conditions, it’s not easy to plan,“ as she shows me pictures on the phone of fields of radishes with yellow leaves that couldn’t be sold.
DobroPolníci mostly cooperate with the Litoměřice food bank because their employee Martin, who brings the car with crates, is an enthusiast and almost part of the team, according to the sisters’ words. The food bank then redistributes the food to charitable organizations (and social service providers) like children’s homes and shelters for mothers with children.
Why don’t farmers let people take the vegetables that can’t be sold for whatever reason? Klára’s boyfriend gave a reasonable answer: “Why should they give something to someone for free?” And selling it directly to people would mean more logistics. Milena Filipová, an agricultural officer formerly working in the vegetable sector says “Most farmers won’t let people glean and that’s a huge pity.” She acknowledges both the value that the organic matter goes back to the soil, but also saddens over the fact that the food didn’t get to a consumer and got lost or wasted.
The vegetables that are left on the field will be ploughed into the soil. And this was just one farmer that we visited. Some vegetables get ruined by the weather, some don’t meet the quality standards for sale, and some don’t find a market.
“There is no such thing as organic waste in agriculture,“ Milan Procházka, a Czech farmer from Žižice, says that a farmer always finds a way to process it. His son, Antonín, explains that the soil needs to get something in return too. “It is a bigger problem if the carrots are thrown away by a restaurant,“ because there is much more energy and resources wasted compared with leaving the carrots in the soil. They explain how the land and soil are overloaded and exploited and need to be taken care of.
What doesn’t get sold is used as feed for animals or given back to the soil. “And if you leave something like a carrot in the soil, next year the crop of barley growing in that spot will be higher than the rest,” they say while we’re standing on a huge land of grass with a few beautiful cows that we’re stroking.
Milan, growing mainly different kinds of grain and sugar beet on about 450 hectares on their family farm, explains that if they wouldn’t harvest a part of the field, there would be no water (and almost no energy) wasted, because it would rain there anyway. And sometimes it is just not profitable to harvest for the farmer. “When the corners of the field are intertwined with weed or there are big objects like stones in the field that could damage the machines,” František, the youngest from the family, says.
If there are blueberries in the forest left unpicked, we don’t consider it food waste either, maybe because there were no resources wasted. They also don’t fall under agriculture or other category and under any statistic.
“If a farmer would let people take his crops one year, he wouldn’t sell anything the next,” says Antonín. People also ruin farmers’ fields. “If it was profitable for the farmer, he’d sell it,” Milan reacts to my mention of the gleaned carrots that didn’t find a market “and if he doesn’t sell, he will be troubled, sad about it”.
“Small private farmers almost don’t waste at all, they are very ecological and thrifty; they put a lot of work and money into what they do and they also plant various different crops,” says Filipová. “The biggest wasters are ‘specialists’: vegetable and fruit growers,” because they are pushed by size norms of supermarkets and the EU, she adds.
A brutality that part of the farmers do according to Milena Filipová is incineration of food in biomass boilers. “They create energy for themselves, so the carbon footprint stays locally, but they still burn food,” she says.
The father of Milan, now almost 90 years old, explains that a farmer always uses and processes everything (he grows). That according to him is the difference between a farmer and a consumer “A consumer wants to eat and have everything right away, but the farmer must plan, sow, and wait for the yields”.
“Agricultural households have a completely different relationship with the land,” says Lea Kubíčková, the head of a food waste research that measures household waste.
Even if the farmer wanted to sell the rest of his crops on his own or have people pick it themselves, legislation is not making it easy for farmers, according to Milan and Antonín.
And when we go back to “loss or waste in agriculture”, which according to Milan is nonexistent, he mentions how they have to fill out statistics of what they produced, lost/wasted, etc. but they never know those numbers exactly and therefore he says that they are very inaccurate, mostly estimates. “If they want this data from us, they should pay for it.”
Households are still the biggest food wasters, according to multiple studies. Their percentage of wasted food is the highest, ranging in the forties and sixties depending on the length of the food chain. That also caught the attention of Lea Kubíčková, the head of a food waste research that measures household waste in the second largest city in Czechia, Brno. There are a lot of estimates of food waste, but the team wanted to know the real numbers – hard data, so they have been digging in black garbage cans of the citizens of Brno for the past two years and analyzing their contents. “They are all estimates (qualified estimates, but still estimates), but we really went and weighed and analyzed trash from garbage cans,” she said.
Not only did they bring numbers of household waste from housing estates, residential areas, and the countryside, in the second year of their research they discovered that people can be influenced to waste less. The average Brno citizen throws out over 30 kg of edible parts of food per year according to their findings. The year-on-year decrease of food waste was by 11%, most impressive being housing estates, they wasted almost 27% less food after the experimental group was being exposed to a campaign or interventions conducted by the researchers. “In the countryside there is much less food in the mixed municipal waste, because people can compost it or feed it to the animals,” Lea Kubíčková said. The least wastage was measured during the hardest lockdown in Czechia, the researchers admit they cannot omit the pandemics presence.
When asked whether after their analysis she still finds the data about food waste alarming, she replied that most important is that “People think they behave better than they really do; they estimated they throw 14 kg of food per person a year, not over 30 kg,” Lea Kubíčková told me, “That’s 120 kg for a 4-member household and that’s a pile of food!” She explains: “If I wanted to be an optimist, I would say that in the Netherlands or in Britain they waste more, but I still think 33 kg per person per year is a lot. It’s a good pile of food that had to be produced, left a carbon footprint, and water was used for it.”
Fruits, vegetables, bread, and baked goods were among the most trashed items. Compared with the previous year, the citizens of Brno wasted less meat, eggs, and baked goods. Both years, about 50 percent of the discarded waste was biological waste that could have been composted. In this project the researchers counted only edible parts as food waste.
“This project is unique in its extent, because a similar experiment has not yet been carried out in such an extent not only in the Czech Republic, but probably not anywhere else in the world,” said project leader Lea Kubíčková from the Mendel University in Brno. The project is in its second year, in its third and last, researchers will observe, whether people will keep wasting less as they did while being influenced during the second year. They analyze garbage cans of 900 households from 9 different locations in Brno divided equally into housing estates, residential areas, and the countryside four times a year. The citizens of Brno waste the most food in summer.
According to Lea Kubíčková, it makes sense that households waste the most, because in developed countries processing is at a high level, restaurants are under pressure not to waste, and they need to be profitable, so they have it well thought out. “So it’s up to us individuals.” She also believes the consumer stands behind other variables too, like plate waste in restaurants. Therefore, the researchers are focusing on the consumers.
During our phone call she named just a few causes of household waste: food is cheap, we don’t appreciate its value, especially the young, although the next generation is hopefully better. At the conference presenting the findings of their research she pointed out that the biggest causes of wasting food in households are low estimate of actual waste rate and low interest in the issue or awareness about it. Then there are other like: poor storage, ignorance of the difference between the terms “use by” and “best before”, cooking large amounts of food, low food quality, large harvest of own production, reckless purchases (large packages) and insufficient planning. “The Czech consumer is also price sensitive,” Lea Kubíčková said, so especially older people even though they usually have a relationship with food, they buy a lot of something on sale that they can’t process themselves.
In their campaign/interventions to influence people to waste less food they focused on 3 main pillars: smart shopping, proper storage and cooking without leftovers. They used various platforms to reach their experimental group. From each of the three locations they measured garbage at, they had one control group and two, which they influenced by a cheaper, and more expensive campaign.
In their influencing campaign or interventions, the researchers found most effective to positively motivate rather than shock or scare and to bring specific numbers: in one of their promotional videos, they say a consumer can save up to 40 thousand Czech crowns (under 2 000 USD) a year, which could account for a vacation. They targeted various different groups but focused on children in primary schools as they are the most open to changes according to the researchers. “It’s an investment for the future to educate kids in schools,” Lucie Veselá said.
Over the last four years over 40% of Czechs steadily consider food waste to be a big problem and over another 40% consider food waste not right but believe there are more current issues that need to be addressed according to the Center for Public Opinion Research of the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences. This statistic also tells us that slightly over 50% of Czechs declare they throw out max 10% of their food and almost 80% of them consider saving money a very important or important reason to mitigate food waste.
The researchers bring hope. Consumers can be influenced to waste less food, but it is a journey for many years to come. “It will take about ten years before the consumer gets educated.” The gist of the problem is that people don’t realize they are wasting (that much) food. “Even I had a bad estimate about my own food waste,” Kubíčková says, “If you then weigh it for a month you’ll find out that it’s quite a lot“. “People don’t realize it’s a problem and not to waste food isn’t as common as recycling yet.”
People and children especially (the Z generation) don’t have the awareness of food banks, the organization Zachraň jídlo and other initiatives aiming to mitigate food waste in the Czech Republic, the researchers say. “It doesn’t come up to their mind to donate excess food.” On the other hand, Lea Kubíčková says that 72% of people were interested in more information about the topic; they mainly wanted to know how to process various leftovers.
Czechia stands pretty well among other European countries in the EU estimates of food waste. According to this statistic a Czech person throws out 81 kg of food a year, but that’s in the entire food chain. That’s why Lea Kubíčková says “We were interested in what the household alone really did”. Americans, the Dutch (541 kg), the English (236 kg) waste a lot more. “They don’t cook so much (those who cook, waste less), use semi-finished products (ready-to-cook-meals) and they don’t mind the food waste, it’s a different lifestyle,” Lea Kubíčková says while mentioning they will cooperate with the US (Louisiana) on another food waste project. The researchers will continue searching for the causes of food waste even more with the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, working with sociologists and anthropologists on a qualitative analysis and on how the way of life can also influence food wasting.
Where is the balance between not wasting anything (& stressing over it) and wasting too much? There’s no easy answer, but Lea Kubíčková stays positive and thinks that even 30 kg is a lot and that it should be reduced. She believes that the consumer can be educated and that that is the way to go: with the long-term education of the consumer. How? She explains that the feeling that I can influence it and change it is very powerful. “If I save a bun a day, that’s 365 a year.” She hopes to spread the message that “it is normal not to waste food like it is normal that we recycle”.