Something is rotten in today’s 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 that affects our use of water and land, or the emphasis on sustainable development, a key parameter of 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 food! A staggering statistic which costs industrialized countries $680 billion and developing countries $310 billion .
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.S .
How and why are we wasting so much food?
Here are some facts that will help clarify the situation we are in.
Some alarming statistics about food waste
The facts around food waste and its destruction of the environment are astounding. Just some of the worst of these are listed below [1,2,3]:
- At least 33 million tonnes of food waste is placed in landfill every single year – in the USA alone! Over 97 percent of the USA’s food waste is placed in landfill.
- In 2010, less than three percent of food waste was either recovered or recycled.
- According to a study by the University of Arizona, food waste costs an average family of four people at least $589.76 every single year.
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 are on the top of the list with 45 percent of yearly production going to waste. This is almost half of what we cultivate in the first place.
Statistics for other food stuff are not more encouraging, unfortunately.
We waste about:
- 35 percent of fish and seafood
- 30 percent of cereals
- 20 percent of dairy, meat and oil seeds and pulses 
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 percent of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels, while in industrialized countries more than 40 percent of losses happen at retail and consumer levels .
Why does food waste happen?
Statistics and facts will probably not 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 industrialized countries food waste usually occurs as a result of consumption patterns and consumer behavior.
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 to 40 percent of fruit and vegetables end 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 misshapen .
Retailers and supermarkets will tell you that consumers want beautiful looking fruit of a standard shape, size and color, so there is not space for odd ones.
What can we do to address food waste?
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.
Radical changes are needed to eradicate food waste – but we need to look at our food production system as a whole.
- 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 behavior.
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.