An alarming new report estimates that between 30 and 50 percent of all the food produced in the world is lost and wasted. This is a shocking finding given the scale of malnourishment and hunger on our planet.
While it is tempting to blame governments for this appalling state of affairs, the truth is that almost all of us contribute to this problem. While governments must do the lion’s share of the work, individual citizens can also help to reduce loss, waste and hunger.
The new report is by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a British-based independent organization. The two-year study concluded that about half of the 4.4 billion tons of food that is produced worldwide annually is never eaten.
Those findings track with a study by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, conducted for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and released in 2011, which concluded that about one-third of all food produced — 1.3 billion tons — was wasted annually, in equal measure by developed and developing nations.
With 870 million people already suffering from chronic malnutrition, the world population exceeding 7 billion and climbing, and climate change altering agricultural production, there is no room for such practices.
The causes are many: Some food is left in the fields, more is wasted because of poor storage and transportation. Still more is wasted by markets and consumers. Ultimately, the scale of waste is large enough to prevent the world from “sustainably meeting our future food demands,” especially when it is estimated that food production must double by 2050.
There are many steps that can and should be taken to remedy this absurd situation. In hot climates, post-harvest wastage of fruit and vegetables ranges between 35 and 50 percent.
Ghana lost 50 percent of its stored corn in 2008 because of poor storage facilities. Better storage in Pakistan could reduce food losses by 16 percent. Better roads will speed up the time it takes for crops to reach markets, and better information about demand — relayed by cellphone for example — could help ensure that farmers get their goods to the right markets.
In the developed world, much of the food loss occurs on the corporate end because the food does not meet aesthetic standards. Incredibly, as much as 30 percent of the British vegetable crop is not harvested because it does not meet marketing standards for size and appearance.
The Japanese should understand that problem, as consumers here are some of the most finicky in the world, demanding products that are “perfect, pristine and pretty.”
Food scandals of recent years have also encouraged consumers — and supermarkets — to keep a close eye on sell-by dates. Food retailers all over the world adhere strictly to such warnings, resulting in severe losses.
Estimates of the amount of waste in Japan range from 17 million to 23 million tons a year; the low end of that forecast is equivalent to 30 percent of the country’s domestic production, a stunning number in light of the oft-cited goal of obtaining “food security.” The high end — which comes from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries — is worth almost ¥11 trillion and is the monetary equivalent of Japan’s annual agricultural output. Experts reckon it costs another ¥2 trillion to dispose of that waste.
Tokyo alone produces about 6,000 tons of food waste a day, an amount sufficient to feed 4.5 million people a day. In total, some 40 percent of all food in Japan ends up in the garbage. And this occurs when 750,000 people in Japan lack food security and 60 percent of food is imported into the country. Short sell-by dates for prepared foods — often just several hours long at convenience stores — also results in tremendous waste of perfectly good food.
Obviously, we need to pay more attention to shopping and eating habits. It is not uncommon for shoppers in the developed world to throw away as much as half the food they buy. The tendency to indulge is driven by marketing schemes that offer “buy one, get one free,” even if we really do not need that second item. It is hard to say no to a bargain. We need to learn to say “no” more effectively.
Indeed, consumers need to be more discerning throughout their shopping experience and be vocal in words and deeds. The study of shopping habits is extremely advanced and corporations live and die by their data. If consumers make conscious effort to change their habits, retailers will notice.
Consumers can also make better use of food banks and other resources that help the hungry and less fortunate. On the individual level, they need to be conscious of the less fortunate before they throw good food out. And, they too should be encouraging the organizations they work for and the places they shop to be equally solicitous of the needy.
Education should emphasize the need to avoid wasting food. Again, it is all about sending signals.
It is unrealistic to expect to eliminate all waste in food. But the idea that one-half of food production is wasted — and that much of it is because of aesthetic reasons — is intolerable.