Did you know that a third of all the food that is produced on our planet — totaling 1.3 billions tons and valued at over a trillion US dollars — is wasted every year? Considering that more than 800 million people throughout the world go hungry every day, this really is quite unacceptable.
A study that was recently published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) revealed that if we could prevent just one quarter of all the food that is wasted each year from being trashed, we could alleviate world hunger. In other words, the food that we waste each year could feed all the starving people around the world for a period of four years; meaning nobody should go hungry, ever.
In developing countries, food wastage is high along the production and supply line, mainly due to inappropriate farming methods; lack of modern refrigeration, processing and packaging technologies; and poor infrastructure and transport networks. The FAO estimates that around 30-40% of all food produced is lost before it reaches the market, with fruit and vegetables as well as root crops suffering the highest losses.
By contrast, in developed nations food wastage is higher after it makes it onto supermarket shelves. Yet, with all our modern technological innovations, fancy fridges and deep freezers, we really need to question why this is so. In affluent countries around the world, rich consumers with a throw-away mindset tend to keep their fridges well stocked, purchasing far more food than what they can realistically consume before the ‘best-before’ date stamped on the label. Consequently, much of this food is discarded before it is used, and more food is purchased to ensure the fridge is kept well stocked.
Social, Economic & Environmental Effects
When food is lost or wasted — whether on farms, during packaging and production, or after is has reached the market — the end result is that less food is available to meet consumer demands. Food is a basic commodity that we require to survive, and much like any other valuable commodity, prices tend to fluctuate according to supply and demand. Food is continually in demand, and this demand will increase as population growth increases; when the amount of food produced does not meet the demand, food prices escalate, with the poorest members of society being hit hardest.
Furthermore, food loss/wastage also equates to a loss of resources used in the production of these foods: land, water, energy, fertiliser, labour and capital outlay for equipment. When food gets trashed, consumers still need to eat. And so more food is produced to meet the dietary requirements of these consumers. This is then transported to supermarkets, resulting in more fuel being used, which in turn results in more greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere.
But this is not the only environmental cost. Food waste consists of organic matter, which emits methane as it decomposes on a landfill. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide. As landfills are the third largest anthropogenic source of methane emissions, with decomposing organic waste from landfills being a large contributor, it is clear that decomposing food waste is making a substantial contribution to climate change. If we made a concerted effort to curb food wastage we could significantly reduce anthropogenic atmospheric emissions. Then one also has to consider the packaging (think plastic and polystyrene) associated with food that is wasted, and the impact this is having on our oceans.
Financial Value of Food Waste
According to the FAO, nearly one third of all the food that is produced around the world every year is wasted. The financial retail value of this wasted food is estimated to be nearly 1 trillion US dollars (with around US$ 680 billion worth of food wasted in industrialised countries and US$ 310 billion wasted in developing countries). But the true economic, social and environmental cost is actually much higher than this, estimated to be around 2.6 trillion US dollars annually.
A recent campaign run by Rethink Food Waste estimates that in the United States alone, over 218 billion US dollars is spent on the production, transportation and disposal of food that simply goes to waste. More than 52 million tons of food is disposed of in landfills across America each year, with over 10 million tons remaining on farms, unharvested. As a result, close to 63 million tons of food is wasted in America each year. It is estimated that the average American wastes more than nine kilograms of food every month — more than what consumers in poorer nations waste in an entire year. In Australia, it is estimated that approximately 7.5 million tons of food goes to waste each year, with households discarding food valued between $8-10 billion each year.
Since water usage is highest in the agricultural sector, wasted food is synonymous with wasted water, which is becoming more and more scarce. Thus, if we were to significantly reduce the amount of food we waste, we could address many of the social and environmental problems we face today — world hunger, water scarcity, energy demands and climate change.
How Can we Reduce Food Wastage?
Given the perishable nature of food items, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to totally eliminate food waste. However, we can take steps to reduce the amount of food being wasted and to prevent this waste from ending up rotting on a landfill. This can be achieved in a number of ways:
- Improving food management throughout the production and supply chain;
- Implementing food recovery programs to channel surplus food to people in need; and
- Recycling food waste through composting or waste-to-energy (biogas) projects.
Improving Food Management
Reducing food loss and wastage along the production and supply line requires a concerted effort by everyone concerned. Education and awareness campaigns targeting both consumers and key players in the food industry are essential to highlight and create awareness of the issues.
Surplus food can be recovered all along the production and supply chain, from farms to supermarkets, as well as restaurants and homes. Food that has damaged packaging or is approaching the sell-by date or best-before date is still good to eat and can be distributed to charities that feed people in need, or used to feed livestock, shelter animals, or even your own pet dog or pot-bellied pig.
Recovering Food on Farms
A significantly large amount (estimated at around 25%) of fruit and vegetables produced are simply discarded on farms because they are considered ‘ugly’ or misshapen. While a misshaped carrot, for example, may not be as aesthetically pleasing to the eye as a regular shaped carrot, it still has the same nutritional value as the former and there is no logical reason why it should be discarded. There is now a drive to change people’s perceptions and to recover these ‘ugly’ food items, diverting them from the landfill. In Australia, Harris Farm Markets have launched an online portal where nutritionally sound, yet visually imperfect food products can be purchased online at a greatly discounted rate, saving consumers money, preventing food from being wasted, and helping farmers in the process.
Recovering Food in Supermarkets
France was the first nation to make it illegal for supermarkets to discard or destroy good quality unsold food, requiring that they donate it to food banks or charities that provide meals to the needy instead. While they are not legally required to do so, many businesses in America and Australia are following suit. For example Woolworths in Australia partnered with OzHarvest to distribute edible food items that would otherwise be discarded to poor or homeless people.
Recovering Food in Restaurants
New York restaurants have taken up the Zero Waste Challenge, training their chefs to plan meals more efficiently and reduce the volume of food they produce after the peak meal-time rush, and donating excess food to charities that supply meals to homeless shelters, as well as composting inedible food scraps and organic waste.
Recycling Food Waste
Food that cannot be recovered can be recycled to put it to good use and prevent it from being sent to a landfill.
Separating food waste (and other organic material) for composting is one way of recycling discarded food. The organic matter is slowly broken down by microorganisms that naturally occur in soils, releasing nutrients that are essential for plant growth as the waste is converted into nutrient-rich humus — an organic fertiliser that can be worked into soils to improve water retention and overall soil quality to enhance plant growth. Compost bins are available commercially, or you can simply set up your own compost pile in a corner of your garden. Composting earthworm farms (worm bins) are another popular method of dealing with kitchen scraps. The earthworms consume the food scraps, converting them into humus together with a nutrient-rich liquid fertiliser (worm tea) that can be used to nourish plants.
Another method of recycling organic waste is through anaerobic digestion to produce biogas — a natural source of energy. While this technology is still relatively new, it is becoming more common, with a wide range of industrial, agricultural and domestic waste (including food waste) being used as fuel stock. The organic material — in this case food waste — is fed into a bio digester, where anaerobic methane-forming bacteria break it down, releasing methane gas in the process. This biogas is a sustainable source of natural energy that can be used for cooking, lighting and to power engines or pumps. In addition, a nutrient-rich solid residue is left behind as a secondary byproduct of the process. These bio solids can be applied to soils as an organic fertiliser to enhance crop growth. While it may not practical for every household to have its own bio digester, it is feasible to have one serving each community or a number of neighboring communities considering the benefits on offer.
What Can You Do to Reduce Food Waste at Home?
Consumers are the largest contributors of food waste sent to landfills. We need to actively change our habits if we hope to reduce the amount of waste that we discard. The following tips can help you get started:
- Save left any left over food, and eat it as a snack, or incorporate it into another meal.
- Use up any odds and ends in your fridge by incorporating them into dishes such as stir-fries, where you can be creative and add a wide variety of ingredients.
- Plan meals ahead, and only purchase what you need for the week — particularly in the case of fresh produce and foods that will not keep.
- Avoid purchasing fresh produce in bulk to save costs, unless you know you will be able to use the food items before they go off, or are able to freeze the excess.
- Store fresh herbs in a sealed plastic bag or zip lock bag with a little water added to keep them fresher for longer.
- Repack your fridge, ensuring perishable items and foods with a limited shelf life are stored in the front rather than at the back where they are likely to be forgotten about and will need to be tossed.
- Freeze any fresh food products that you won’t be able to eat before they go off.
If you still need to toss food in the bin, consider incorporating it into meals for your pet, recycling it into compost, or sending it to a facility that converts food waste to energy instead.
As we can see, food waste has grave social, economic and environmental consequences — it affects food security, squanders precious natural resources, and contributes to climate change. Yet each and every one of us can do our bit to reduce food wastage by making simple changes in our everyday lives.