What else did COVID-19 do? The impact of virus outbreak on food waste

16.11.2020
3 min read

What Covid-19 outbreak has done no longer needs any introduction. Probably the most accurate way to describe it would be the hesitation that the world will ever go back to normal again. And since some countries are tightening restrictions again, it’s high time to remember what consequences the first lockdown has had on the environment and food waste in particular. 

Although food waste doesn’t seem to be a great problem as an organic waste that is meant to decompose in comparison to plastic one, this statement needs few corrections: first, it only decomposes when it’s utilized the right way (for example, composted rather than thrown away in a plastic bag). Second, it’s a great waste of all kinds of resources — water, energy, and labor. Third, it contributes to landfill gas rise as it is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material. And, last but not least, even before quarantine almost a third of food was being wasted in the USA, according to FDA (1) (which sounds especially dramatic amid the forthcoming crisis).

What did happen in Spring 2020?

Strict and prompt lockdown ended disrupting the food supply chain — from farm to fork — that wasn’t ready for this, especially producers who are largely dependent on the foodservice sector. (2) For example, the dairy industry suddenly had a surplus of milk as cows couldn’t stop being milked but major buyers like schools and coffee shops were temporarily closed. Dairy Farmers of America estimated that farmers used to be dumping 14 million litres of milk each day. (3) There was another product in abundance that is onion. About 40% of onions produced in the US are destined for restaurants which were closed. (2) 

The case of chicken production differed from the ones of milk and onion, as it had enough buyers. But meat processing plants became the hotspot for the virus leading to reduced labor and slower output. Some chicken farmers had to euthanize their birds because it would be too expensive to raise the quantity of chickens they had planned. (2)

Why does it matter? 

Besides the economic losses as well as great loss of resources (that is another way of affecting the environment), food waste is associated with landfill gas increase that is roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2). (3) According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this is methane that is 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period. (3)

The picture above shows that food decay starts with rapid carbon dioxide production and is followed up with methane emission. Together these two gases are known to be greenhouse ones. It makes food waste an environmental hazard that could contribute to global warming. (3)

Positive side of food chain disruption

But even amid crisis and outbreak there is a silver lining in managing food waste which is the way households changed their attitude to food. The two major factors for this were economic hardships and limited access to food (both because of restrictions and food supply disruption). All premises together made the shift to at‐home meal preparation which is traditionally associated with the reduction of food waste by consumers. (4)

Conclusion

Though Covid-19 outbreak in spring showed that the food supply chain wasn’t ready for the prompt restrictions and led to overall food waste increase on the level of producers, the amount of which is yet to be determined, other chain actors, including processors and grocery retailers, likely have not experienced such increases. As to household-level, food waste is predicted to decrease due to the economic crisis and limited access to food suppliers. The question which still remains is whether the ongoing outbreak will influence the problem of massive food waste in the long run or not?