Food Waste

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Of all the food that is produced around the world every year, a third is wasted. What this in effect means, is that 1.3 billion tonnes of food, valued at over one trillion US dollars, simply goes to waste each and every year. That would not seem so bad if it were not for the fact that 870 million people go hungry every day. According to a study conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), if a quarter of the food squandered each year could be saved, it would alleviate global hunger – or to put this in another way, the wasted food could feed the starving mass of 870 million people four times over.

Food Loss

In developing countries food losses occur primarily along the food production chain, with small producers being hit the hardest.

Farmers going to market

Farmers going to market – Courtesy of International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

According to the FAO, on average, approximately 30-40% of the total food produced is lost before it even gets to the market, with the highest losses typically being reflected in the production of fruit, vegetables and root crops. These losses can occur due to a host of problems, including inappropriate use of inputs, as well as inadequate harvesting techniques combined with inadequate storage, processing and/or transportation facilities. Investments that support farmers in their efforts to improve production and minimize losses, such as improved transportation infrastructure and expanding the food packaging industry, could go a long way to prevent these excessive food losses.

Food Waste

In industrialized nations, food is typically wasted after it has reached the market. Wastage is fueled by an affluent consumer base who possess a throw-away mentality and purchase more food than they or their families can realistically consume. Consequently, a large percentage of the unused food gets disposed of as a result.

Food is also wasted due to overproduction – where the supply is higher than the demand – often as a result of subsidies, which also leads to food having to be removed from supermarkets in order to adhere to safety regulations.

Food waste

Food waste – Courtesy of Stephen Rees

Affluent consumers in North America and Europe waste approximately 10 kilograms of food per capita every month, which is more than what consumers in Southern Africa and Southern Asia waste in a year.

It is estimated that 30% of all food purchased, valued at 48.3 billion US dollars, is discarded every year, and 32% of annual food purchases in the United Kingdom are discarded. Since agriculture uses the highest amount of water resources, it stands to reason that wasted food resources are also wasted water resources.

In order to reduce food wastage, it is essential that consumers change their behaviour. More efficient coordination between players along the supply chain will also help reduce wastage, as will finding a more beneficial use for food that is currently discarded.

Economic & Environmental Effects

It doesn’t really matter whether food is lost during production or squandered along the supply chain, at the end of the day, the result is the same – there is less food available on the market, which in turn drives the market prices upwards, fueling food price increases. In poor countries, consumers typically cannot keep abreast with these price increases.

Environmental Effects

When food crops are wasted, so too are the resources that went into producing these foods, including land, water, energy, fertilizers, labour, capital, etc. Wastage means that more food needs to be transported to meet the food demands of people, which equates to more fuel being used, and thus more transport-related carbon emissions. Furthermore, when wasted food is disposed of, it decomposes and emits methane gas during the decomposition process – methane is a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and as a result contributes substantially to global warming and climate change. In the United States, organic waste accounts for the second highest component of landfill sites – the largest source of methane gas emissions –  so curbing this wastage could significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Food Security

Global food security is a pressing issue as the world’s current population of seven billion people is expected to steadily rise to nine billion by 2050. Clearly a more efficient method of food production and supply that focuses on limiting losses and wastage is essential if we are serious about alleviating world hunger.

By Jenny Griffin


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