The Global Food Wastage Crisis and The Fight To Reduce Its Environmental Footprint

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In this two-part series leading up to the World Food Day on October 16th, we will be essaying the problems of Global Food Wastage Crisis and the fight to reduce its environmental footprint. About what you can do to fight this crisis. 

Figure: Global food waste
Does this look blemished to you? Half of the food produced in US is thrown away because of this. Figure: Global food waste Credit: trashwiki

Are you binning surplus or ugly-looking but good food? Well, think twice before you do it next time since it costs much more than you can imagine. The demand for ‘blemish-free’ farm produce has been inflicting heavy burdens on the earth and its people – climate  change, pollution and hunger.

As per a 2011 report, food produced from about a third of available agricultural land (1.4 billion hectares) is either wasted intentionally or lost unintentionally along the food distribution chain. This food, when stacked in 20-cubic metre skips would be enough to reach all the way to the moon and encircle it once.

Meanwhile, 795 million people suffer from severe hunger and malnutrition. The Food and agricultural Organization (FAO) reports that the world’s hungry populace can be undoubtedly fed, if food waste were to reduce by a mere 25%.

Credit: World Food Program
Hunger Map, Credit: World Food Program

Food loss vs food waste

Although the problem is global, it happens for strikingly distinct reasons in different parts of the world. Farm produce is commonly lost in the fields or during post-harvest handling and storage. Such unintentional ‘food loss’ happens widely in developing countries due to adverse transport conditions, poor storage facilities, and infrastructure management. Political and economic situations may also play key roles as in the case of Peru.

The demand for blemish-free or perfect-looking farm produce is part of the problem Credit: Pixabay
The demand for blemish-free or perfect-looking farm produce is part of the problem Credit: Pixabay

In contrast, in wealthy countries and urban centers of developing countries, the ‘cult of perfection’ has led to a heavy volume of nutritious farm produce being thrown away on flimsy grounds. While retailers demand unattainable cosmetic standards or visual aesthetics, consumers discard surplus food on a regular basis. Most of the food lost in these parts of the world is during packaging, storage or distribution, and at supermarkets, restaurants, and fridges.

Jay Johnson, who ships fresh fruit and vegetables from North Carolina and central Florida, told The Guradian, “It’s all about blemish-free produce. What happens in our business today is that it is either perfect, or it gets rejected. It is perfect to them, or they turn it down. And then you are stuck.”

The problem is not just ‘downstream’ of the markets. Interviews with farmers, packers, wholesalers, truckers, food academics, and campaigners has revealed considerable waste occurring ‘upstream’– scarred vegetables abandoned in the field to save the expense of harvest or freshness or good-quality produce with minor blemishes left to rot in a warehouse.

“There are a lot of people who are hungry and malnourished, including in the US. My guess is probably 5-10% of the population are still hungry – they still do not have enough to eat,” says Shenggen Fan, the director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. “That is why food waste, food loss matters a great deal. People are still hungry.”

A visual depiction of where, when and how most food wastage happens can be found here. In the UK, the sum of estimated food loss and waste is 15 million tons yearly with most of it from households, according to the Waste Resources Action Programme. Approximately $1600 is being wasted by a family of four in the USA. Major entities from the public and private sectors have commissioned World Resources Institute to establish international standards for more accurate quantification.

Impact on climate, natural resources, and wildlife

FAO of the United Nations (UN) predicts that this might increase by four times by 2050 and would warrant a whopping 60% increase in food production. Discarding food translates to wastage of all the efforts and resources used to produce it.

MUST WATCH VIDEO: HOW YOU PLAY A PART IN FOOD WASTAGE! 

At the moment, food production uses up far more natural resources than what is required. Clearing forests to develop cultivable land could reduce biodiversity and can acutely alter water cycles. Production of fertilizers and pesticides that increase yields releases greenhouse gases (GHGs) contribute to water pollution as well. Agriculture uses nearly 70% of available water globally, which results in less water being available for other purposes. Finally, energy is needed for harvest, processing, storage, and distribution to consumers, resulting in more GHG emissions.

When managed sustainably, soils can store large amounts of carbon and thereby potentially decrease GHGs in the atmosphere. Efficient management of natural resources can not only help end hunger but also fight climate change.

Instead, we are handling earth’s resources poorly and damaging important ecosystems, which pose serious threats to the future.

According to FAO’s Food wastage footprint (FWF) report, the carbon footprint of wasted food adds 3.3 billion tons GHG yearly into earth’s atmosphere, ranking third after USA and China. This is excluding the GHG emissions from land use change. Globally, the annual consumption of surface and groundwater resources due to food wastage is equivalent to the annual water discharge of Volga river in Russia or 3.6 times the water consumed in the USA. Finally, unused food occupies agricultural land area that is larger than the size of China making it worthless besides releasing methane while rotting.

Though it is difficult to estimate impacts on biodiversity at a global level, FWF reports that food wastage unduly compounds the negative externalities such as biodiversity loss including mammals, birds, fish and amphibians created by agriculture expansion into the wild.

It is disheartening that, the video of a bear stealing from a dumpster from the back of a Colorado restaurant that went viral a few years ago, does not strike to most of us as a classic example of the serious challenge surrounding food waste disposal.

A recent post on Yale Environment 360 talks about why it is not a joke that wildlife has started relying on human food leftovers in various ecosystems. It also emphasizes on how “subsidizing” animal diets creates unforeseen outcomes (eg., predator-prey relationships) and highlights that removing that food source could be equally problematic for reliant animals and their predators alike.

Therefore, reducing food wastage would mean effective use of resources in food production that could have progressive implications on climate change, water scarcity, pollution, and habitat loss.

In the second part of the series, we will focus on ways to reduce the food wastage footprint. What YOU can do to reduce food wastage. Stay tuned!