Limiting Waste, Conserving Resources

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A street market in Tianjin, China. As the world’s most populous country with a rapidly expanding middle class, China has the potential to show the rest of the world how to create a more sustainable food future.

By Erin Simon

Today, 7.3 billion people consume 1.5 times what the Earth’s natural resources can supply. By 2050, the world’s population will exceed 9 billion, and the demand for food will double. Feeding this growing population will create a tremendous burden on a stressed food production system.

We are already seeing this trend in action, as a growing global middle class is increasing the demand for food. No place is this more evident than China, where a burgeoning middle class is consuming more food, especially meat.

PwC reports that in 2011, the average Chinese person consumed more calories per day than the average Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian, Filipino, Vietnamese and even Japanese person and is quickly nearing South Korean, British and American levels. China is, in many ways, a harbinger of things to come. In the next two decades, the country will consume nearly a quarter of all chicken produced in the world. It already has the second largest poultry industry in the world, producing nearly 13 million metric tons in 2013.

Eating so much chicken takes its toll on the environment. It involves a lot of natural resources, including feed, water and energy, and also generates significant amounts of waste and greenhouse gases. To produce one chicken, it takes 10 days’ worth of drinking water, more than eight pounds of feed, and enough energy to power a television for 18 hours.

Since imports feed much of China, the nation’s consumption affects some of the world’s most endangered regions, including the Amazon, Central Africa and Central Asia, which are threatened by agricultural expansion.

Soy production, in particular, has significant environmental impacts. The soy fed to Chinese poultry is grown in the United States, Brazil and other parts of South America, where it’s linked to deforestation of the Amazon as well as the loss of grasslands and woodlands such as the Cerrado and Chaco regions. Feed crop expansion is also encroaching on the Northern Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada, which are home to bison, foxes and ferrets, not to mention thousands of ranchers.

It is essential for all the actors across the value chain – from farmers, factory owners, retailers and consumers – to understand that they have a role to play in conserving our natural resources. Limiting food waste is a critical step that the food industry and consumers alike can take to reduce the use of natural resources needed to produce food. Despite resource-intensive production, about 20 percent of meat is never consumed. It is lost or wasted within the supply chain or in restaurants and home kitchens.

One way to reduce the loss and waste of meat is to prolong its shelf life. This means improving supply chains that keep meat cold during storage and distribution. It also entails improving packaging at retail. Today in China, most chicken is sold in so-called wet markets where it is not packaged and, as a result, can spoil faster.

By reducing waste, we can increase food security and conserve natural resources, and alleviate the pressure on the global food production system both within China and the fragile ecosystems where feed is sourced. As the world’s most populous country with a rapidly expanding middle class, China has the potential to show the rest of the world how to create a more sustainable food future. The lessons we learn from China can eventually be implemented globally so that our global food system can be ready to handle the growing population before us.

World Wildlife Fund and Sealed Air are collaborating to minimize the environmental footprint of poultry and to implement best practices for a sustainable supply chain that addresses food safety, packaging, storage, and distribution of poultry products in China for retail and food service applications.

Erin Simon is Deputy Director of Packaging and Material Science for the World Wildlife Fund. Through her efforts, she works with business and industry to help them make informed, sustainable material choices for their products and packaging. Her work focuses on the major commodities that go into packaging, which come in many different forms and materials, and how to integrate sustainability into the decisions and trade-offs that must be evaluated across a product’s lifecycle.

Image credit: Flickr/gill_penney

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One response

  1. Erin, do you have any data on how much chicken from “wet markets” gets wasted?

    I’m under the impression that most meat in wet markets is either sold or used before it goes bad. Here in Vietnam just about every part of an animal is used, one way or another and vendors seem to know their markets. With low profit margins a vendor can’t afford to buy more stock than they can sell.

    It’s also important to consider the environmental impact that packaging and refrigerating pose. Potentially that amount of plastic/paper and energy might rival the improved shelf life.

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