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The problem of food waste

Professor Stefano Pascucci and Amanda Goodwin introduce research being embarked upon for reducing food waste in Cornwall.

1 June 2021

If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest greenhouse gas emitter behind China and the USA.

A staggering 10 million tonnes of food and drink is wasted in the UK each year, yet research shows that 14% of UK families with children have experienced food insecurity in the past 6 months. In Cornwall, where we are based, 1 in 4 children are going hungry.

Foodmarket litter trash crowded

This is a huge problem that needs to be addressed from a humanitarian, environmental, sustainability and financial perspective.

As part of the Tevi (Cornish for ‘grow’) Food Waste Challenge Network we are conducting ongoing research into the issue of commercial food waste, working with various stakeholders to find ways of reducing the problem.

While the project is focussed on Cornwall, the findings will be relevant to similar rural areas around the world. First, in regions where most business and industry are SMEs. Second, where the environment is primarily rural and geographically isolated. Third, where you have a diverse set of stakeholders, all of whom are part of a shared system, but where there is no infrastructure to tackle food waste in a joined-up way.

The research is concentrating on the steps needed to reduce commercial food waste at a systems level where the biggest impact can be made, while ensuring production and processing approaches benefit local communities and the natural environment.

There are four areas of focus to the research:

  • How much usable food never leaves the producer, what does it consist of, and what is its carbon footprint?
  • How much food is wasted by processors, distributors, and consumer-facing businesses, what does it consist of, and what is its carbon footprint?
  • How can SMEs identify and adopt the right food waste reduction and prevention innovations/solutions/strategies for them?
  • What infrastructure is needed to harness food surplus locally and create a more environmentally sustainable, economically thriving and socially equitable food system?

You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

In the context of Cornwall, one of the main issues is the lack of a consistent way of identifying, measuring, and managing commercial waste. The Cornish commercial food system like many others can be divided into three main categories:

  • food producing stakeholders (e.g., farm businesses producing food products for local demand or export)
  • food processing and distributing stakeholders (e.g., food logistics and delivery services)
  • consumer-facing stakeholders. (e.g., food retailers, markets, bars, and restaurants).

All these actors have their own impact on how much food is lost along the way and different challenges. However, they are all part of one overall system even if it is not formally arranged.

To create a sustainable food system, data, and insights on food waste streams throughout the value chain, right from the producer through to the consumer are needed.

What needs to happen?

In embarking upon the research, we are following a three-stage approach, considering the three main groups of actors in the commercial food system. While certain actions can be taken within each of them, the biggest impact can be made by what changes you can make overall.

Target – establish a high-level target.

The first stage is the setting of an initial common target uniting a network around a shared ambition. To align Tevi’s efforts to the broader food sustainability agenda, we have suggested setting a network-wide target of 50% food loss and waste reduction. This is in line with the UN SDG 12.3 (to halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and to reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses).

Measure – develop a baseline for food waste.

Second, where do you start measurement from? We suggest measurement throughout the value chain and getting a systems perspective. This will provide a holistic picture of where food losses and waste arise. It will uncover where action is most urgently needed and where infrastructure, research and policy can serve a vital role. It will also uncover issues that require a whole-supply chain approach—for example, where food loss or waste at one stakeholder level is driven by policies or practices higher or further down the value chain.

Action and enable.

Lastly, to foster a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach hinges on a need for organisational support in guiding stakeholders and bringing together all different sources of information. In short, could we have one inclusive, central organisation that oversees the transition towards a more sustainable and just food system?

The future?

At this stage, we are engaged with various stakeholders from the food system and the research is continuing through to December 2022 where we will have identified and developed interventions that address the challenges within the food system, while avoiding harmful knock-on effects. We look forward to sharing these findings with you in due course.

Photo by ja ma on Unsplash 

Photo by Paul Schellekens on Unsplash


Led by Amanda Goodwin with direction from Professors Steffen Boehm and Stefano Pasucci, the Tevi Food Waste Challenge Network is a collaboration between the University of Exeter Business School and a range of regional enterprises and projects that include, The Hive, South West Food HubAgriTech, LEP Rural Sub Group and Circle Economy.

Start today. Change tomorrow.

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