As obesity soars in the western world so too does the amount of food waste we produce. From excessive portions scraped off our plates to fruit and vegetables destroyed because of how they look something just does not feel right. Add in the contrast with those who have to struggle to find and afford the food to keep their families alive and it’s easy to see that our whole approach to what and how we eat is in need of serious reform.
There is massive pressure to feed a hungry world so how can our consciences allow so much to go to waste? To nurture animals for food and cultivate crops is an intensive business with huge environmental implications. And yet, we waste so much every day while calling for more and more choice in our supermarkets. We seem to have lost something of the rhythm of the food production cycle with our demands for strawberries in January and our sense of place as we fly steaks from Argentina.
According to the United Nations, the world’s population will swell from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion by 2050. As food production struggles to keep up with the rapidly growing global population, it becomes ever more important to curtail and control food waste. It will take time to reverse the trend but it would be foolhardy to delay taking action.
Of course, we don’t just waste food when we groan “oh, I’m full”. There is also much lost at the beginning of the food production process for all sorts of reasons:
What are we doing with the food?
We often lose food even before it leaves the farm. Why do we do this?
- Farmers plant too much to compensate for changing climate and weather risk and then end up with too much if the weather is fine.
- Retailers set high aesthetic standards for fruit and vegetables leaving many "non-perfect" items as unfit for sale. These largely get dumped although there are some brave shops stocking curvy
carrots or ordinary oranges.
- In low-income countries, poor harvesting skills can result in damaged produce or low yield.
What is the scale of the waste?
- Around one third of food produced in the world for humans every year - approximately 1.3 billion tonnes - is lost or wasted.
- Across industrialised countries, food waste adds up to around US$ 680 billion while, for developing countries, it’s around US$ 310 billion.
- The highest wastage rates are sadly in the things we need to eat more of namely fruit, vegetables, roots and tubers.
- Around the world, we waste around 30% of cereals, 40-50% of root crops and fruit and vegetables, 20% of oil seeds, dairy and meat and 30% of the fish we catch.
- Looking at it from an individual perspective and it’s so much worse. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan
Africa, South and South-eastern Asia, each throw away only 6-11 kg a year. Total per capita food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year in rich countries, almost twice as much as
the 460 kg a year produced in poorer countries.
- For developing countries, we lose 40% at the post-harvest and processing stage while in industrialized countries more than 40% of losses happen at the retail and consumer levels.
- Our fetish in the west for how food should look drives waste higher.
- Food loss and waste are also a sign of our willingness to treat the resources we need with contempt. So many seem oblivious to the wasting of water, land, energy and the human cost of those who work to fill our over-sized plates. And there’s the impact on global warming too as we ramp up greenhouse gas emissions.
Is there anything we can do?
- If we could save only a quarter of the food currently lost or wasted globally, it would feed 870 million hungry.
- Developing countries need to look anew at the entire food production process and work out where the waste happens.
- We must examine the food value chain from its early stages to the food’s appearance in shops and restaurants. What are the financial, management and technical factors which impede both
harvesting techniques and food storage?
- Let’s work together to make the supply chain function effectively. This will require support and education for famers, better conditions for workers and investment in infrastructure and
transport. In addition, can we not limit packaging waste?
- In medium and high-income countries, we waste food mainly at the later stages of the supply chain. So much of that is down to individual consumer behaviour. Perhaps we should feel more awareness or even guilt about wasting food. If we were not so “picky” about what we buy, then we would quickly discover that a misshapen apple can taste better than a “perfect” one.
Producers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers have to develop a shared vision where the food we make gets eaten and where nobody in the world goes hungry.