Food waste

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Article Published 04 Jun 2012 Last modified 11 May 2021
3 min read
Photo: © Istock
Around one third of the food produced globally is lost or wasted. When more than one billion people around the world go to bed feeling hungry, it is impossible not to ask what can be done. But food waste is not only a missed opportunity to feed the hungry. It also represents a substantial loss of other resources such as land, water, energy - and labour.

Rich or poor, young or old, we all need food. It represents much more than nutrition and a rich variety of tastes in our mouths. More than 4 billion people depend on three staple crops - rice, maize and wheat. These three staples provide two thirds of our energy intake. Given that there are more than 50 000 edible plant species, our actual daily menu looks very dull with only a few hundred species contributing to the food supply. 

With billions depending on a few staples, the rise in food prices from 2006 to 2008 was felt across the world. Although developed countries generally succeeded in feeding their populations, parts of Africa struggled with famine. This was not only because the market failed.

Climate change adds to the pressures on food security and some regions feel the strain more than others. Droughts, fires or floods directly hamper production capacity. Unfortunately, climate change often affects countries that are more vulnerable and less likely to have the means to adapt. But food is also in one sense just another ‘good’. Its production requires resources such as land and water. Similar to other products on the market, it is consumed or used, and can be wasted. A substantial amount of food is wasted, particularly in developed countries, and that means also wasting the resources used in producing that food. 

The food sector and food waste are among the key areas highlighted in the European Commission’s ‘Roadmap to a resource efficient Europe’ from September 2011. Although it is widely recognised that we are wasting some of the food we produce, it is quite difficult to come up with an accurate estimate. The European Commission calculates that in the EU alone, 90 million tonnes of food or 180 kg per person are wasted every year. Much of this is food still suitable for human consumption.

Not only about food

Copyright: Gülcin KaradenizThe environmental impacts of food waste are not limited to land and water use. According to the European Commission’s roadmap, the food and drink value chain in the EU causes 17 % of our direct greenhouse gas emissions and 28 % of material resource use.

Tristram Stuart, author and one of the key organisers behind ‘Feeding the 5k’ (an initiative of feeding 5 000 people on Trafalgar Square in London), reckons that most rich countries waste between a third and half of all of their food. 

‘It is not only a rich world problem. Developing countries suffer from food wastage levels sometimes almost as high as those in rich countries, but for very different reasons. The lack of adequate agricultural infrastructure, such as post harvest technology, is mostly to blame. You can estimate that at least a third of the world’s entire food supply is wasted,’ Tristram says. 

Food waste happens at every stage of the production and supply chain as well as at the consumption stage. And it can have many reasons. Part of food waste is caused by legislation, often put in place to protect human health. Another part could be linked to consumer preferences and habits. All the different stages and reasons need to be analysed and targeted as necessary to reduce food waste. 

The European Commission’s Roadmap calls for a ‘combined effort by farmers, the food industry, retailers and consumers through resource-efficient production techniques, sustainable food choices’. The European target is clear: halve the disposal of edible food in the EU by 2020. Some members of the European Parliament have actually called for 2013 to be designated as the ‘European year against food waste’.

‘There is no silver bullet. Every single different problem needs a different solution,’ says Tristram, adding, ‘The wonderful news is that we can reduce our environmental impact and it does not need to be a sacrifice. It’s not like asking people to fly less, eat less meat or drive less, all of which we may also have to do. It’s actually an opportunity. We simply need to stop throwing away food and enjoy it instead.’

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