Food waste, the word itself evokes the mouldy half lemon that was forgotten somewhere at the back of our fridge. But what can be overlooked, is that food waste happens in many other ways, which means that a broader definition of the term is needed. A lot of waste has to do with how the industrial food production has changed our dietary habits. In many markets, for example, food prices are maintained high, by systematically destroying any food surplus that would cause prices to go down.
According to some statistics, 2.9 trillion pounds of food are wasted every year. This would equal to 1 third of food produced being lost, along with all the resources used to produce it. This means that 28% of agricultural land grows food that will be wasted, along with 250 km2 of water, enough to cover all global household water needs.
Food waste takes place in consumers’ households as well. According to the FAO, on average northern Americans and Europeans throw away 1 fourth of the food they buy. In the US this is the largest portion of food waste, at a whopping 43%.
In the EU, an estimated 20% of the total food produced each year is lost or wasted, costing us approximately 143 billion €. Meanwhile, around 33 million people in Europe cannot afford a quality meal every other day.
Selina Juul from Stop Wasting Food Denmark holds that the current global food waste could feed the starving population of our planet 3 times. At the same time, the production system is struggling to keep up with rising demands: we use up too many resources compared to what we are able to produce, which means that soon we might need more space to grow food than what is actually available on the planet.
Additionally, wealthy countries’ demands of for more food are driving up the prices of food worldwide, so that entire sections of population are growingly experiencing difficulties in being able to afford basic nutrition.
In general, food waste in supermarkets happens because of three drivers. The first are the displays of overstock. Customers are more likely to buy from a full display of food, rather than from a half empty one. Every time a new shipment of food arrives to supermarkets, it is cheaper to just throw out and replace older stocks, instead of checking whether food is still fit for consumption.
A second cause of waste are unreasonable cosmetic standards for fruits and vegetables. When food is not the right size, shape, or colour, it is categorised as B stock, which is more commonly thrown out or left unharvested. Very often, the B stock label is applied automatically by food-harvesting machineries in the fields. To make an example, nearly half of tubers produced each year never reach the table.
Lastly, food waste takes place also because of a generalised misunderstanding of sell-by dates. In fact, these tend to mark the period of peak freshness, rather than the dates by when the food will spoil. However, stores will pull out products with a near sell-by date days before they actually expire, fearing that customers will think they sell old stock.
Along other ethical concerns, there is a need to factor in the environmental sustainability of food production. In fact, if food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, right after China and the US. Amongst all products, meat is the least wasted, but it causes the highest greenhouse gas emissions.
Generally, expired food is thrown in landfills, where we’d think it would biodegrade in the course of a few months. Accessory pollutants such as pesticides, fertilisers, packaging, and so forth, all ed up in landfills. However, due to the structural characteristics of landfills, materials that would normally biodegrade end up being preserved through time instead. During this process, food in landfills releases considerable amounts of methane. Methane is 23 times more damaging to the atmosphere than CO2 and contributes considerably to the acceleration of global warming.
You might be asking yourself what we can do to make things better. Well, there is much we can do as citizens, such as using a list for shopping, based on what we actually need to buy. Also, keeping a temperature of 4° C (or lower) in the fridge seems to be optimal for better preserving food. And in general, avoiding shopping while hungry helps making smarter choices.
According to Dana Gunders, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defence Foundation: “Of all of the challenging problems out there, reducing the amount of food we waste is the easiest”. This really makes us think that a concerted effort of citizens, governments and businesses could reduce considerably the food crisis and global hunger.
A movement towards gaining stronger awareness on food is taking place at different levels of society.For example, the EU is actively engaged in reducing by half its per capita food waste by 2030. Since 2016, grocery shops in France are not allowed to throw away food but are bound by law to donate it.
Different charities and organizations that collect and redistribute food waste to those in need are emerging across the globe. Amongst these are Stop Wasting Food (Denmark), Feeding America (US), Cool Chain Association (UK), and Sg Food rescue (Singapore). The kind of work they carry out makes it increasingly easier to join movements that sponsor conscious food consumption and contrast the global hunger.
Tedx Talks, Oct 5, 2012, Stop wasting food: Selina Juul at TEDxCopenhagen 2012 [Video], Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIIhbjY4s8A&list=WL&index=9
TEDx Talks, Jul 31, 2019, Solving Hunger by Solving Food Waste | Vince Hall | TEDxSDSU [Video], Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVvcRN4Thw4&list=WL&index=3
TEDx Talks, Jun 4, 2020, Food Waste: the key to the three greatest challenges | Philippe Schuler | TEDxHochschuleLuzern [Video], Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSoZ2QzUt2k&list=WL&index=4&t=2s
TEDx Talks, Jan 24, 2019, The Food Waste Dilemma | Daniel Tay | TEDxNTU [Video], Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_R2y0feHLE&list=WL&index=5&t=183s
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Sep 11, 2013, Food wastage footprint [Video], Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IoCVrkcaH6Q&list=WL&index=6
TED, Sep 17, 2012, Tristram Stuart: The global food waste scandal [Video], Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWC_zDdF74s&list=WL&index=7
TEDx Talks, Mar 22, 2018, What can we do to reduce food waste? | Ali Jackson | TEDxLFHS [Video], Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-ZE1GF2q-0&list=WL&index=8
TEDx Talks, Oct 5, 2012, Stop wasting food: Selina Juul at TEDxCopenhagen 2012 [Video], Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIIhbjY4s8A&list=WL&index=9
Vox, May 10, 2017, Food waste is the world's dumbest problem [Video], Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RlxySFrkIM&list=WL&index=10
Food Loss and Waste Database, http://www.fao.org/platform-food-loss-waste/flw-data/en/