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How are the COVID lockdowns affecting food waste?

With the onset of December, throughout Europe, the second wave of coronavirus has initiated a second lockdown. Countries like France, United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Portugal and Sweden have closed their bars and shops again like the previous lockdown. These measures become challenging for the food industry as it is still trying to cope with the losses of the first lockdown. The food industry is one of the most affected industries by the pandemic. The supply chain blockages, lack of labour and the closure of restaurants and bars are some of the ways in which the industry was affected. It resulted in large amounts of waste generation from all levels due to a change in consumer behaviour. Understanding the challenges posed by the first lockdown, such as the large amount of food waste generated, is crucial to effectively prepare for them in the coming months. In what follows, we analyze the food waste stemming from various levels of the supply chain.

Producer-Level Food Waste

The farmers suffer from a lot of market factors which result in food waste such as price volatility, high labour costs, lack of labour availability, goods not meeting the aesthetic standards of the buyer and damage from pest. These factors stayed constant with the onset of lockdown but another unforeseen factor significantly increased food waste, that is, specializing in production for the foodservice sector. A lot of the producers grow their crops specifically for the foodservice sectors including restaurants, schools, hotels, stadiums, movie theatres and airlines. When these places were shut in the lockdown, the producers suddenly did not have any buyers and since these are supply chain developed over years, trying to find buyers in lockdown was incredibly hard. Most farmers decided to just throw away their produce. Another issue they faced was that different sectors have varying specifications for the products. For example, fresh produce like lettuce would need to be industrially packed to be supplied to grocery stores but they are often packed in bulk for the foodservice buyers.

Processor-Level Food Waste

FarmDocDaily illustrates how milk and chicken have been affected by the lockdowns.

  • Milk: Major buyers of milk from the farmers are schools and coffee shops which were both closed in lockdown. Since the cows couldn’t stop producing milk large quantities of milk had to be thrown away. It was not possible to process it and convert it to cheese, for example, as there were limited processing capacity and cold storage.
  • Chicken: The supply chain issue was no less for the chicken farmers. As the meat processing plants started to adopt COVID-related precautionary guidelines, there was a reduction in labour and reduced output. This meant that it was much cheaper for the farmers to euthanize their chicken than raise it for longer periods.

Foodservice-Level Food Waste

Figure 1: Restaurants and stores shut down in lockdown.

Many restaurants worldwide have had to shut down completely either due to COVID regulations or due to mounting business losses. The restaurants that were shut throughout lockdown had to throw away their stored goods as the lockdown lasted a couple of months. For example, in the UK, pubs had to throw away large amounts of their stored goods when they reopened after the first lockdown as it was expired by that time. The restaurants that were running during the lockdown had to adapt to the new irregular demands. Improper prediction of how much food to prepare for the next day or weeks have resulted in high food waste. This can be attributed to the change in consumer behaviour which included change in the frequency of the orders, the quantity and the composition of orders the restaurants received.

Household-Level Food Waste

A common household behaviour in response to lockdowns was stockpiling. People were seen hoarding large amounts of food items when the lockdowns were announced as they suspected potential lack of food in supermarkets. This kind of behaviour leads to an increase in waste because households often mismanage surplus food (Thyberg and Tonjes, 2016). As explained by Ellison et al. (2020), “some households may be willing to incur waste associated with stockpiling if it provides a sense of security in a time of a scarcity or if it allows for more social distancing (fewer trips to the grocery store)”. Despite that, the net effect on the household level waste is unclear as the food prices are increasing.

Figure 2: The different levels of food waste generated in the parts of the world.

Figure 2 illustrates how the different levels of food waste are attributed to different parts of the world. In North America and Oceania, over 40% of food produced is thrown away. More than half of their food waste comes from the household level, which is the case for industrialized Asia and Europe. Meanwhile, in sub-Saharan Africa and South and South-East Asia, most of the food waste is generated at the production level and handling and storage.  

How to overcome these challenges?

Deloitte has put forward five solutions to overcome the challenges that farmers and the supply chains face in terms of food waste:

  1. Food safety insight – Sensors and machine-learning algorithms tracking freshness are helping retailers cut food losses along the value chain.
  2. Food waste insight – Better insight into food waste through AI helps foodservice providers develop targeted action plans.
  3. Supply chain traceability – Digital technologies like blockchain can bring order and transparency to the system as food moves from farm to plate.
  4. Market access – Better market access prevents post-harvest food losses on smallholder farms.
  5. Make food for the future – New technologies such as freeze-drying help to make the most of residual fresh food streams.

Although these points provide valuable suggestions to reduce food waste, they do not provide immediate solutions to the problems that producers are facing in lockdown. There are certain specific ways through which supply chain actors and policymakers can mitigate food waste generated from lockdowns.

Firstly, as in the previous lockdown where possible farmers should donate or sell their products to food banks (Kardis, 2020; Evich, 2020). It is however not feasible for many farmers to donate their food banks as the cost of transportation and packaging is not possible. In such cases, the farmers should try to set up direct to consumer sales through farmers markets or independently through online selling.

Much of the help needs to come from policymakers in such situations. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had started a food box program, where a potential purchase of $3 billion of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products would be packed and send to people in need. Another tool to reduce food waste at the processing level would be to temporarily relax certain regulations which would allow producers to sell their products to grocery retail markets.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are 12 points to consider when the supply chains are under strain and the priority is to meet the immediate needs of the vulnerable population while avoiding the food waste.

  • Promote school feeding
  • Ensure that emergency food needs are fully met
  • Protect basic consumption needs of vulnerable populations
  • Scale up nutritional support
  • Support management and prevention of undernutrition
  • Adjust social protection programmes for food prices
  • Allow free and predictable flow of food assistance
  • Ensure that local purchases of food and food components for humanitarian purposes are exempt from restrictions
  • Explore the establishment of efficient and effective humanitarian food reserves
  • Reach all households with pertinent public information on food assistance, nutrition and hardship alleviation programmes.
Figure 3: The 9 points put forward by FAO for issues on trade and policies of the supply chain.

Figure 3 illustrates what kinds of adjustments to trade and tax policies can improve the supply chain. These 9 points can help in reducing food waste while also easing the strain on the supply chain. As mentioned above, movement of products was restricted largely as the farmers couldn’t pay for it. According to FAO, food availability from small farmers can be increased through the following points:

  • Provide productivity-enhancing safety nets
  • Reduce post-harvest crop losses and improve food stocks along the value chain
  • Remove artificial constrains to domestic trade throughout the food chain in order to link smallholder farmers to markets
  • Address basic energy needs of smallholders and rural households.

The policymakers and governments need to consider the points put forward by FAO before issuing another lockdown to not only reduce the food waste but also reduce the strain on the supply chain. On the consumer level, food waste can be significantly reduced if people avoid stockpiling products and buy products responsibly as many places are experiencing certain shortages.


Published by Pranshu Patel

I am an ambitious environmental science graduate who is passionate about climate change and decarbonisation. I enjoy researching and writing about sustainability and climate change.

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