Washington: Globally, we throw out about 1.3 billion tonnes of food a year, or a third of all the food that we grow.
That’s important for at least two reasons. The less the world wastes, the easier it will be to meet the food needs of the global population in coming years. Second, cutting back on waste could go a long way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
How do we manage to waste so much?
Food waste is a glaring measure of inequality. In poor countries, most of the food waste is on the farm or on its way to market. In South Asia, for instance, half of all the cauliflower that’s grown is lost because there’s not enough refrigeration, according to Rosa Rolle, an expert on food waste and loss at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
Rich versus poor
Tomatoes get squished if they are packed into big sacks. In Southeast Asia, lettuce spoils on the way from farms to city supermarkets. Very little food in poor countries is thrown out by consumers. It’s too precious.
But in wealthy countries, especially in the United States and Canada, around 40 per cent of wasted food is thrown out by consumers.
That number, from the FAO, is the result of several factors. We buy too much food. We don’t finish our plates. We spend a far smaller share of our income on food.
“As you get higher and higher income, you get more and more profligacy in food waste,” Paul A. Behrens, an assistant professor of energy and environmental sciences at Leiden University in the Netherlands. The US as a whole wastes more than $160 billion in food a year.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, which tracks food loss, dairy products account for the largest share of food wasted, about $91 billion.
“In the developed world, food is more abundant but it costs much less,” Rolle said. “In a sense people don’t value food for what it represents.”
Food waste and loss has a huge carbon footprint: 3.3 billion tonnes of carbon equivalent. And that’s not all, according to a 2014 report from the FAO. Wasting that much means a lot of water is wasted, too — the equivalent of three times the size of Lake Geneva, as the report puts it.
“Food waste — it’s kind of the tip of the iceberg,” said Jason Clay, a senior vice-president in charge of food policy at the World Wildlife Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group. “It’s the most obvious place to start.”
Rolle said some of the most basic fixes are at the bottom end of the supply chain: Metal grain silos have helped against fungus ruining grain stocks in countries in Africa. In India, the FAO is encouraging farmers to collect tomatoes in plastic crates instead of big sacks; they squish and rot less.
Higher up the food chain, supermarkets are trying to make a dent by changing the way best-before labels are used — making them specific to various food categories to discourage consumers from throwing out food that is safe to eat — or trying to sell misshapen fruits and vegetables rather than discarding them.
Some countries are trying to regulate food waste. France requires retailers to donate food that is at risk of being thrown out but is still safe to eat. European Union lawmakers are pushing for binding targets to curb food waste by 50 per cent by 2030, echoing a United Nations development goal; negotiations have been underway since June.
Some countries pushing back on the idea of continentwide targets.
That would make a difference, but not as much as one might think. Dr Behrens of Leiden University addressed the issue in a recent study: Cutting waste would have “at least the same impact or more than changing diets.”
— New York Times News Service