With the global population estimated to grow to nine billion people by 2050 much attention has been devoted to how governments, agriculture producers and food companies will produce enough food to feed the world. It is a daunting challenge that will require the development of new technologies and a rethinking of how resources such as fresh water are applied throughout the supply chain. But in addition to the need to produce more food, the role of food waste reduction must not be overlooked.

How food waste is perceived in the food and beverage industry also will require rethinking. While it may lead to increased sales, it also is going to become a focal point for providing nutrition to people in need. The United Nations estimates that one-third of all food produced in the world is wasted. The reasons for the waste are numerous. In developing countries food waste results from infrastructure constraints related to distribution, storage, processing and packaging. In developed countries, waste primarily is generated by the end user, whether it is uneaten food at restaurants or thrown away by consumers in the home.

At the moment, groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association, Food Marketing Institute and National Restaurant Association view food waste reduction as a way to divert edible food to the needy in the United States and improve each industry’s environmental footprint. Their efforts, which have led to the creation of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, are to be lauded, but the goal must be much broader. Initiatives to reduce the amount of food waste must be undertaken with an eye toward the challenges associated with global population growth.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by such an enormous challenge, but like most initiatives the first steps may be to focus on small efforts that may one day lead to greater savings. Within each component of the supply chain are actions that may be taken to reduce waste and increase the amount of food available for consumption, whether it is human consumption, for animal feed or even for use as compost.

Just as a focus on conservation has brought companies the economic benefits of using less energy, packaging materials and water, there is no reason to think similar benefits won’t accrue to companies that reduce food waste. A breakdown of the source of food waste reveals that the agriculture and food manufacturing are not significant contributors to the issue. Only 2% of waste comes from food processors while institutions account for 10%, retailers account for 11%, the food service sector 33%, and consumers 44%.

Real initial savings in North America will come from the institutional, retail and food service categories. There is an economic incentive for each market segment to develop long-term solutions, and the infrastructure exists to measure, benchmark and achieve established goals.

Addressing consumer food waste, which primarily occurs in the home, will be the most challenging aspect of any reduction effort. As food and beverage industry executives already know, changing consumer behavior is a long-term endeavor. One need only look at how long it has taken to establish viable recycling and recovery programs in many urban areas as a guide to the effort it will take to get consumers to reduce the amount of food waste generated.

This is an endeavor that requires effort throughout the supply chain and stakeholders need to raise awareness of the issue throughout each segment. Much like efforts to develop sustainable environmental solutions, progress in reducing food waste will come from a focus on managing waste, measuring the results and working to reduce future waste by developing new methods of waste reduction. Such an endeavor will have both short-term and long-term benefits that will further enhance the efficiency of the food supply chain.