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Focussing on households, engaging communication-based interventions to change behaviour can impact food loss and waste (FLW) across Asia.

Between 1.2 billion and 2 billion tonnes of the 4 billion tonnes of food produced around the world every year never gets eaten. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that this adds up to one-third of food being lost or wasted. The large amount of FLW has prompted calls to address the economic, environmental and social impacts of FLW.

FLW occurs at practically every step in food production: in the field, during transportation, while in storage, during distribution and in homes.

In developing countries, food waste is often the result of inadequate storage and distribution systems. In India, for instance, 21 million tonnes of wheat is wasted after being harvested but before they reach consumers. Some FLW research contends that regardless of the state of national development, most food is wasted during the final consumption phase. The cultural, social and economic decisions made by producers and consumers contribute towards FLW. As with aspects of food safety related to consumer handling, a focus on households and consumer behaviour to reduce household waste provide one avenue towards national strategies for FLW reduction.

In Asia, we suffer from a lack of data on FLW, but this is also the case in other regions. Even the US data for is plagued by variations in definition, such as whether inedible parts are included and which stages of the supply chain and end destination are factored into calculations. There are four commonly cited estimates of FLW in the US, none of which measures the same thing. However, the lack of consistent definitions and uniform measurement should not hinder efforts to prevent FLW. Commitments have been made i.e. SDG 12.3, and the time to take action is now.

We know from experience in such chronic issue campaigns, change takes time. In the case of FLW, we need to know more about Asian audience characteristics relative to FLW. What makes Asian households minimise household waste; are they interested and motivated to do so? We expect there to be great variation in such data, so the lack of harmonisation on measurement IS an issue with regard to making comparisons, but the time to start is now.

In a country like Singapore, one with no agricultural production system of its own, it would be revealing to look at citizens’ attitudes and behaviour towards, not just household waste management and food waste, but resource efficiency in general. We then need to look closely at any associations between age, gender and socio-economic characteristics and their behaviour towards food waste.

Through these foundations, the beginnings of a behavioural strategy to reduce FLW can be contemplated. At first, it is likely that any campaign starts as an informational intervention. Economic benefits could provide some impetus, savings per year were estimated at 420 UKP for an average UK household and 454 EUR in the case of an average Italian household (Segre & Falasconi, 2011). Environmental impacts could also provide ‘food for thought’ in terms of greenhouse gas emissions or water wastage.
FLW is often thought to be someone else’s problem that ends when the bin lid closes or you take out the trash. Several initiatives in the EU, for example, have aimed to increase audience awareness towards FLW and its impacts. Key associations between individuals’ demographic and socioeconomic characteristics have been produced. These include:

  • The older people are the less likely they are to generate waste;
  • Youths require the most targeting on the FLW issue;
  • Women are likely to reduce FLW than men (Barr, 2007);
  • The lower the level of education, the smaller the amount of food waste generated (Monier et al., 2011 [PDF]);
  • People living in urban areas are more likely to produce higher quantities of food waste than people living in rural areas.

These key findings and others (sorting of waste and relationship between FLW and environmental littering) would be valid and fruitful areas of research in developing strategic FLW frameworks both nationally and at ASEAN level. Changing the behaviour of consumers would be part of the solution. The beginnings of such a strategy would include:

  • Memorable campaign platforms developed with unexpected themes and using social desirability biases to give a local, identifiable face to a national framework for an entire food supply chain;
  • Attention to novel communication processes, beyond social media. Younger people are reached and engaged in the debate;
  • Food business operators integrate FLW into their training schemes, raise the awareness of staff and customers regarding food wastage and increase know-how on how to prevent food waste;
  • Schools and day-care centres place FLW into educational materials with interactive stories, cybertexts and games;
  • Involve audiences in research, allow them to be part of the process of development and refinement;
  • Expedite pilots with initial UBA (uncontrolled before and after) measurements to accelerate movement towards RCTs (randomised controlled trials).

FLW is a vital issue, and we are at the foundation stage in Asia-Pacific. We should not neglect the socio-economic progress in the region to assume that losses in “developing countries” result only at early stages of the food supply chain due to lack of financial, technical and managerial resources in production. Mitigation at the retail and final consumption stages, with households as the focus area (perhaps in concert with campaigns around foodborne disease), could address avoidable food waste. Building a community of practice around this important food risk issue before SDG and other targets slip away.

Andrew Roberts

Author Andrew Roberts

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