society – literally rotten. It is the perfectly good food we waste each day at different parts of our food system. But surely, with all this talk of resource scarcity which impacts our use of water and land or the emphasis on sustainable development, a key parameter of which is eradicating malnutrition, we must have been looking at our food system and identifying ways to make it more efficient. And yet, today, about a third of all the food produced every year gets lost or is wasted. This is 1.3 billion tonnes of food¹. A staggering statistic which costs industrialized countries $680 billion and developing countries $310 billion¹. In terms of environmental impacts, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S².
How and why are we wasting so much food? Here are some facts that will help clarify the situation we are in.
What kind of food do we waste
We are fairly indiscriminate in the kind of food we waste but roots and tubers as well as fruit and vegetables topping the list of with 45% of yearly production going to waste. This is almost half of what we cultivate in the first place. It is equivalent to 1 billion bags of potatoes or 3.7 trillion apples ³,⁴. Statistics for other food stuff is not more encouraging, unfortunately. We waste about 35% of fish and seafood, 30% of cereals and 20% of dairy, meat and oilseeds and pulses¹.
Where does food waste happen
Most of us will have thrown away vegetables or other products that we forgot at the back of our fridge until it was too late to eat them. And while such a scenario does not sound implausible for most western countries, studies reveal that both industrialized and developing countries generate roughly the same amount of food waste: 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively. The main difference is where the food loss takes place. In developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialized countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels¹.
Why does food waste happen
Statistics and facts will probably not be able to provide the full spectrum of reasons why we are generating so much food waste. In developing countries, the necessary processes, transport links and know-how is not available, while in industrialised countries food waste usually occurs as a result of consumption patterns and consumer behaviour. What is particularly striking is that even perfectly good food sometimes does not reach our table because it is not considered “beautiful” enough. In the UK alone, 20-40% of fruit and vegetables produced by ends up being wasted or at best given as animal feed, ploughed back into the land or sent to landfill. This is because those products did not meet retailer and supermarket standards because they were misshapen⁵. Retailers and supermarkets will tell you that consumers want beautiful looking fruit of a standard shape, size and colour, so there is not space for odd ones. This is one example of how consumer behaviour and preferences can have an enormous impact on our food production system.
What can we do to address food waste
Radical changes are needed to eradicate food waste – but we need to look at our food production system as a whole. For example, do our farmers get a fair income for their produce or do retailers and other actors get the lion’s share of the profits? How are consumers educated when it comes to their weekly grocery shopping? At the same time, on an individual level we can deliver change by changing our own behaviour. For instance, we can plan our meals better to reduce the amount of food that goes to the bin, ensure we only buy what we need rather than purchase items on the basis of deals or seek out farmers’ markets where products of all different sizes and shapes are available – in all likelihood, prices will be lower there too.
Even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world. If you break figures down by region, eradicating food waste altogether would mean that we could feed 600 million people with the food saved in Latin America and Africa, whereas with the food waste in Europe we could feed another 200 million.
World Food Day was on 16 October, let’s try to make some progress before we celebrate it again in 2017!