Early in the Covid-19 crisis, the fragility of our modern food system, underpinned by just-in-time supply chains, was brutally exposed. In short order, the closures of entire industries wreaked havoc among producers. We quickly saw massive quantities of milk being dumped on dairy farms, eggs being destroyed at production facilities, and farmers with no outlets for their produce forced to plow vegetables back into the soil. As the New York Times reported, one farmer in Idaho alone buried one million pounds of onions that would otherwise have gone to market. Such high-quality food going to waste when millions are food insecure and millions more are facing hunger due to job losses is perhaps the ultimate perverse impact of the virus.
Immediately, many consumers suddenly acted in accordance with their inner-Maslow, fearing for their physiological needs and rushing to supermarkets to stock up on food supplies – disrupting supply chains even further.
And for something that has been taken for granted for so long – and wasted too easily – we’ve all had a wake-up call to the value of food, and many consumers are suddenly viewing food resources with a new level of value.
In subsequent weeks, while locked down at home, consumers in developed countries like the U.S. and the UK have suddenly had more time to cook – and more time to gather over food with family. At the same time, the economic disruption caused by the virus, coupled with the desire to minimize trips to stores to avoid exposure, has given consumers substantial incentive to stretch food purchases to the maximum. Consumers are suddenly exercising creativity with their food purchases, utilizing leftovers, and striving to minimize waste by necessity.
It seems that we are all suddenly gaining some direct insight into the collective mindset of our parents and grandparents from the War years, when food was highly valued, shortages were commonplace, and the nation was encouraged to act responsibly with food to free up resources for the troops. Food was naturally highly valued in that era for the most basic of reasons: it was harder to obtain, relatively more expensive, and much more time-intensive to prepare. Cultural norms calling for shared sacrifice amplified the importance of waste minimization, driven by government-created poster campaigns with messages such as “Lick the Platter Clean – Don’t Waste Food” and “Food is Ammunition – Don’t waste it.” Citizens were also called upon to preserve food aggressively and grow additional food in their own Victory Gardens.
In recent decades, we’ve strayed from these themes and lost touch with the value of food and all of the resources and effort required to produce it – fueled by a culture of abundant food that is easy to obtain on a 24×7 basis and relatively inexpensive. That abundance has led to high levels of food waste in developed countries such as the U.S. – 30 to 40 percent or more annually – to the great detriment of people and planet.
So as we grind through the brutal disruptions caused by Covid-19 and quite naturally begin to look for silver linings in the crisis, one positive can be seen in the manner in which many consumers are changing their behavior toward food.
For example, UK-based WRAP (Waste Resources Action Programme) published the results of a study this month entitled “Citizen Responses to the Covid-19 Lockdown – Food Purchasing, Management and Waste” indicating that consumers have been awakened to the value of food and have adjusted their attitudes, habits and actions relating to food and the amount that they waste.
In interviewing nearly 4,200 UK citizens shortly after the country went into lockdown, the WRAP team found that consumers have reduced the number of shopping trips that they are making while simultaneously increasing the amount of food purchased per trip – clearly in an effort to reduce exposure to Covid-19. Further, WRAP found that the respondents are exhibiting a range of positive food management strategies – starting with additional pre-shop planning and creation of lists of needed items before leaving for the store. They are also paying more attention to optimizing in-home storage of food through refrigerator and freezer management, while demonstrating more creativity to ensure that leftovers are consumed rather than wasted. WRAP notes that a majority of those who engaged in such behaviors reported that it has helped them to reduce waste.
And while the pandemic-inspired increase in purchases per trip could logically put upward pressure on waste, it is notable that the researchers found that the benefit of the positive food waste behaviors led to a decrease in self-reported food waste.
WRAP found that 36% of consumers stated that their household was now throwing away less uneaten food, while only 4% reported that they were now throwing away a greater amount. In addition, WRAP found a 34% reduction in the average level of reported food waste across four key food items as compared to the average from research in 2018-2019.
Also on a positive note, UK consumers seem to be more aware of the importance of the food waste issue and their responsibility for reducing it. Fully 87% of respondents noted that they “strongly” or “tend to” agree that food waste is an important national issue, while 93% strongly or tend to agree that “everyone, including me, has a responsibility to minimise the food they throw away.”
WRAP also found that recognition of its Love Food Hate Waste campaign has increased significantly in the lockdown period, with roughly 33% of citizens now recognizing it.
WRAP is highly encouraged by the results of the research, and is planning on galvanizing support from organizations across the food system to support the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, and to ensure that the new positive behaviors are retained and become everyday practice in the post-Covid world.
We often talk about the need to move from today’s culture of abundance around food – which results in so much waste and a cycle of overproduction – to the culture of responsibility that existed in the War years, when food was highly valued by necessity and waste minimization was the cultural norm.
Could Covid-19 be the “watershed moment” in the fight against food waste that WRAP cites in its recent report? Have we reached a pivotal point for behavior change among consumers in developed countries, such that we can accelerate a societal shift where food waste reduction behavior – as opposed to food wasting behavior – is the norm?
While it is far too early to tell for certain, WRAP’s results are encouraging – and we should absolutely look to build on them. Because if we fail to engineer real change in consumers and organizations around food, starting with valuing it properly, and we continue to experience annual food loss and waste percentages of up to 50% or more globally, we will continue to accelerate deforestation and biodiversity loss and in turn accelerate the potential for future pandemics.
That would be ignoring the wake-up call that is Covid-19, and assuming that we can return to the “old normal.”
That’s not a responsible reaction, nor is it sustainable.