Editorials

Addressing the nation's food waste problem

Legislation calling for greater efforts to curb the waste of edible food — at every stage from production to consumption — has been enacted by the Diet. It requires the national government to come up with a basic policy to address the “food loss” problem and makes it mandatory for local governments to craft specific plans of action. While the problem of overproduction and sales is often highlighted in discussing the issue, consumers can play a significant role in reducing such waste by changing their own behavior.

The government estimates that of the 27.59 million tons of food wasted in this country in fiscal 2016, food still fit for consumption amounted to 6.43 million tons — a volume that has remained roughly unchanged for the past several years. That is equivalent to each person in Japan throwing away one rice bowl of food every day — roughly double the annual worldwide food aid distributed to poor countries suffering from food shortages.

Food waste is an increasingly serious problem worldwide. Roughly 1.3 billion tons of food is reportedly wasted globally each year — even as more than 800 million people worldwide continue to suffer from malnutrition. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for halving per capita food waste by 2030. Overproduction of food and the disposal of food also result in wasteful energy consumption and the discharge of gases that contribute to global warming. Cutting back on food waste is a particularly serious challenge for Japan since it relies heavily on imports to meet its food demand.

In recent years, the problem of food waste has often been highlighted as an issue of mass production and sales — and the subsequent disposal of unsold products — of food linked to specific events or days on the calender such as grilled eel on the Doyo no Ushi no Hi in hot summer, eho maki “lucky” sushi rolls to be eaten on Setsubun in February or Christmas cakes. In January, the government took the unusual step of asking supermarket and convenience store chain operators to make and sell just enough eho maki rolls to meet consumer demand to avoid a large-scale disposal of unsold rolls. Major convenience store chain operators have meanwhile indicated that they will start allowing their franchise stores to sell boxed lunches and other food nearing the end of their shelf lives effectively at discount prices to cut back on the disposal of those food products — the cost of which is largely borne by the franchisees.

However, these retailers account for only about 10 percent of the food waste problem. Food is also wasted in large volumes in the production stages, as well as by the restaurant industry. And more than 40 percent of the food waste is said to come from households disposing of leftover or unused food. The government earlier this year set a target of cutting back on the wasting of food still fit for consumption by households to half of the 2000 level by 2030. A meaningful reduction in the volume of wasted food requires a change in the mind-set and behavior of consumers.

In a recent online survey of 3,000 adults by the Consumer Affairs Agency, nearly 75 percent of the respondents said they know about the food waste problem — an indication of the growing awareness of the issue. Roughly 70 percent said they recognize the problem and are also taking steps to reduce food waste. But the same survey also showed that a majority of respondents do not buy food products that are nearing the end of their shelf life when they shop at supermarkets or convenience stores — a sign that some people may be aware of the food waste issue but do not take concrete action to address the problem.

Meanwhile, only 38 percent of the respondents said they are aware of the activities of food banks — which supply food donated by individuals or businesses that otherwise might be thrown away, even though it’s still edible, to welfare facilities or needy families — while a majority of respondents replied that they do not know of such activities.

Food-related businesses combined are responsible for a majority of the food waste in this country, and reviewing many of the industry practices in these sectors, such as those that control the delivery of food products to retailers and their best-by date, should help to reduce food waste in the production and retail stages. But consumers should realize that they also account for a major portion of the problem and explore what they can do to reduce food waste by reviewing and changing their everyday behavior and eating habits.