We throw away a shocking amount of food. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, every year, roughly one third of the food produced for human consumption gets wasted - 1.3 billion tonnes of it. Commercially, food waste costs the global economy nearly $1 trillion. When you consider the plight of the 800 million people around the world who do not have access to sufficient food, the facts seem even more damning. Given the environmental and financial pressures that the planet is already under due to human neglect, this is a state of affairs that cannot be sustained.
There are a number of reasons why food wastage should be a global concern. Current estimates state that we will need to increase our food production by 70 per cent across the world in order to provide for our rapidly expanding population. Approximately 11 per cent of the earth’s total landmass is already dedicated to agriculture. While it is estimated that we are not using two thirds of the land that could be employed for crop and livestock production, it has been made clear that converting these habitats into farmland could have disastrous environmental consequences. Simply put, we are running out of space to grow food.
As we are already struggling to feed the global population, drastic action is needed. Current UN estimates suggest that if just a quarter of current food waste was reversed, it would be enough to feed nearly 900 million hungry people around the world. The economic impact is also substantial, as food losses during harvest and in storage translate into lost income for small farmers and consequently into higher prices for poor consumers. Clearly, we need to rethink our approach, not just for the future, but for current generations.
Waste occurs at different stages of the production process for rich and poor countries. For developing economies, the primary challenges occur early on. Some 40 per cent of losses take place post-harvest or during initial processing. This is due to a number of preventable factors. Lack of suitable technology for proper storage and maintenance, as well as for use during harvesting, means that much of the food that would be salvageable in a richer country is lost. Financial limitations and lack of managerial expertise also contribute to what can be an inefficient and at times chaotic farming structure. These problems could easily be rectified - direct support for local farmers and investment in infrastructure would undoubtedly streamline the whole process. Only if we recognise the precariousness of the current situation will we be able to do anything to reverse it.
It is not just outdated farming techniques that result in an ineffectual system. A significant part of the problem occurs at retail. This is a particular issue for westernised economies, where consumer behaviour dictates that extra emphasis be placed on appearance. Perfectly good produce is too often deemed unusable because of a slightly eccentric aesthetic. A 2013 report in The Guardian suggested that up to two-fifths of all fruit and vegetable produce in the UK never sees a supermarket shelf as it is deemed too “ugly”. Such an obsession over physical appearance to determine what is and what is not eaten is a major contributing factor to global food waste.
Though improvements can undoubtedly be made at every stage of the process, the vast majority of food waste occurs as a direct result of the actions of western consumers. In Africa, South and Southeastern Asia, waste per capita is approximately 6 to 11 kilos per person a year. By contrast, in Europe and North America, waste is estimated at a stunning 95 to 115 kilos a year. Annually, rich countries throw away as much produce as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa - about 230 million tonnes. A significant reason for this ongoing situation is a lack of awareness over often advisory sell-by dates, as well as little co-ordinated effort to make use of consumer food waste. Because many of us enjoy the privilege of being able to discard food that may be approaching expiry without serious consequence, we often do so without much thought. It all adds up. The food waste produced by consumers in Europe alone could feed an estimated 100 million hungry people.
Clearly, the current situation needs to change. Though significant grassroots action is required to reach a permanent workable solution, there are many groups and individuals around the world who are committed to tackling this global issue in any way that they can. Maryland’s “Food Recovery Network” is committed to salvaging cafeteria leftovers and delivering it to local shelters. So far, they have rescued an estimated 55,000 kilos of food in six years. In the UK, Tristram Stuart’s “Feeding of the 5000” is committed to saving “wonky” vegetables from the scrap heap - encouraging consumers to eat produce that may appear less than aesthetically pleasing. Some projects are committed to really thinking outside the box - World Top Brewery in Yorkshire use discarded loaves of bread to brew beer. This goes to show how useful our waste could be if we put our minds to it.
Chefs, too, are helping in the fight against food waste. Top London chef Francesco Mazzei has exported an anti-food waste campaign to Italy, using discarded supermarket produce to prepare meals for the homeless. “Food for Soul”, a project started by super-chef Massimo Bottura (of Osteria Francescana fame), is a global collaboration of food suppliers, chefs, artists and designers created to tackle urban hunger. Many restaurants, such as Spring, take a proactive approach to food waste and recycling, making them central to their food and their ethos.
For all the action taken by projects around the world, ultimately the greatest difference can be made by individual consumers. In a world where both excessive hunger and food waste exist side by side, we all have an obligation to do what we can. An easy first step is to proactively engage in recycling, making it as easy as possible for the powers that be to extract useful materials and not consign entire loads to landfill. Correct storage and a more disciplined approach to using ingredients that are already in the fridge, rather than always eating whatever takes our fancy, also has the potential to make a huge difference. Finally, taking usually conservative sell-by dates as guidelines rather than gospel will go a long way to reducing the amount of perfectly good food that we throw away.
Though the bare facts of the current situation are somewhat bleak, it is clear that we have the power to make a real, tangible impact. By encouraging investment in growing economies, as well as changing wasteful western practices, we will be able to reverse our current unsustainable attitude to food. It is also clear that individual choices and actions have the capacity to make the biggest difference. It may not seem like much, but it all makes a difference. If we all make a few adjustments, we can throw food waste in the trash can of history.