1400 words | 8 minutes read

“There is food for everyone on this planet, but not everyone eats” – Carlo Petrini

Over the course of time, we’ve understood that we humans have always been hungry. From Hungry for food, it quickly pivoted to Hungry for money. Hungry for love. Hungry for fame. Hungry for change. The list keeps going. It’s reached a point where the blessed majority of us find it a little offbeat to read “hungry for food” in our everyday lives, as we have a full plate in front of us whenever needed.

But the question is how many of us actually finish the whole plate of food? Food not eaten is food being wasted. If you haven’t clocked where this discussion is going, the World Food Clock throws some hard-to-digest facts.

We waste half of the amount of food we consume.

Source: World Food Clock

However, one may assume that developed countries with better food availability, access, utilization, and stability would be a bigger contributor to this number. Surprisingly, it’s almost the opposite. The survey by UNEP (2021, pg. 60-69) highlights that only one developed country i.e. the United States is present in the Top 10 and that China with 91.65 million metric tons of annual household wastes leads India (68.76 MMT) by an amount more than the combined food wastes of Japan (8.16 MMT), Germany (6.26 MMT), and France (5.52 MMT).

But is this food waste only a result of you and me, not finishing the dreaded veggies? No.

ThinkEatSave, a partnership between UNEP and FAO, defines two main terms. Food loss and Food waste, which both refer to a decrease in quantity and/or quality of food-edible parts throughout the supply chain that were intended for human consumption.

  1. Food Loss: Food that gets spilled, spoilt, lost, or incurs reduced quality BEFORE reaching the final consumption stage i.e during the production, handling & storage, or processing stage.
  2. Food Waste: Food that COMPLETES the supply chain and is fit for consumption but still doesn’t get consumed because it’s discarded, left to spoil, or has expired, i.e during retail and consumption stages.

Given the technological advancements in the developed nations, the bigger contributor to food waste in those regions is during the production and consumption phase, whereas developing nations incur higher food losses during the handling, storage, and processing phase.

Not only is food insecurity important aftermath of food wastage, but additional factors also come into the picture. Annually, we waste 1.3 B tonnes of food worldwide, for which we use 250 B tonnes of water, 2.9 B gigajoules of Energy, 1.4 B hectares of land, emit 3.3 B tonnes of GHG emissions and lose a whopping 750 B USD as the economic cost to food producers.

BUT WHAT IS THE REASON?!

  1. Overplanting: Given the adverse weather conditions and unpredictably changing environment, farmers plant more than necessary to control these aspects. However, if conditions remain favorable, they end up with a surplus. The additional cost of harvest, process, and labor involved isn’t feasible in most cases.

    source: healthy-magazines
  2. Aesthetic food standards: If you had the option to choose between a perfectly shaped orange and one with an odd protuberance, we both know we’re going to choose the one that “looks” perfect, even though they’re equally edible. This social construct has led to retailers maintaining high aesthetic standards, which means the “ugly” yet edible produce may not even make it to the distribution truck.
  3. Lack of technology: The opposite of a surplus would be a deficit in yield, common in low-income countries where a lack of harvest technology would result in more wastage and a poor yield.
  4. Poor handling and storage capabilities: Having a high yield is just the first step in the food cycle. A lack of proper transport, poor cold-storage system, and infrastructures with low capacity contribute to the biggest percentage of food loss in developing economies. An article in India Today talks about how Indian consumers end up paying high prices for tomatoes each year because the losses can be as high as 19%. Milk in Bangladesh is transported in Auto-rickshaws in hot climates and bumpy roads, causing spilling and increased chances of fresh produce getting spoilt.
  5. Improved Lifestyles: With better living conditions and disposable incomes, people usually spend more than what’s necessary. Retailers, restaurants, and distributors capitalize on this aspect through their buy-one-get-one offers, all-you-can-eat buffets, and similar schemes to increase sales. Stocked shelves also appeal to the “need for choice” of customers, which leads to much of the products reaching their best-before whilst still on the shelf, therefore, end up being discarded.

    source: The Wire
  6. Confusing labels: With labels of “use-by, best-before” customers end up wasting edible food thinking they are no longer safe to eat. “Best-before” is the retailers’ perception of optimum food quality, whereas “use-by” suggests the day by which the food must be consumed.
  7. COVID Pandemic: Although an unprecedented event, this difficult period has seen a contrast. On one end, large-scale unemployment and increasing demands have put a heavy strain on food banks and charities. On the other, with restaurants and supermarket chains being closed/operating irregularly, the farmers lost their biggest buyers. This led to throwing away millions of perfectly edible food produce. An article in NY Times in 2020 highlighted the scale of food being wasted- 3.7 Million gallons of milk each day and the smashing of over 750,000 unhatched eggs every week. Even though many farmers did donate the surplus to food banks, there’s only so much that they could absorb, with their limited storage facilities. Moreover, the cost to harvest and move the produce to these charities is another issue farmers had whilst facing the fact that more than half their produce went unsold.

The list keeps going, but it’s enough to paint a picture of the world we live in. And like all the global challenges, this one also needs the help and cooperation of all states, countries, and organizations to work together. The Sustainable Development Goal 2 – Zero Hunger, aims at achieving global food security and end hunger.

So what can we do at a personal level?

  1. Take what you want, eat what you take: The very first step towards solving food wastage is finishing the food on your plate. Inculcate this habit and you’ve already contributed significantly without much effort. Whilst shopping, planning your meals for the week/month will give you a good idea of what needs to enter your shopping cart. An audit of your kitchen storage will help. Repeating this practice a few times and you’d have an understanding of your family’s consumption habits. Also, think of at least three recipes with the ingredients you plan to buy.

Save food. Save costs. Healthier life. A Win-Win-Win!

  1. Sharing is caring: Parties/Events/Weddings, especially in India, are known to be lavish. And almost 10-20% of the food goes to waste. Being aware of Orphanages, NGOs, and food banks in your vicinity before the event can help share your celebration with the ones in need. For a list of NGOs, click here
  2. Root-to-stem eating: This trend explores the concept of redefining what constitutes food waste. Potato peels, cauliflower/broccoli stalks, carrot tops, lemon rinds, all can end up in your dish. Just whip out your phone, put on your chef’s hat, and explore the countless recipes online. Voila! There’s a new chef in town.
  3. Taking a Stand: If you’re aware of careless/ignorant food practices at your canteens/local restaurants, reaching out and voicing your concern can also help. Coming up with a solution together and taking a stand from food being thrown away is what we must strive towards.
  4. You are what you eat: We always talk about how everyone is beautiful. Applying that to the world of veggies and fruits can help challenge the food aesthetics we’ve developed and stop tonnes of edible food from being wasted. Selecting food according to their shelf life, utilizing them accordingly, and a daily refrigerator audit to check what needs to be eaten can break the routine for what’s cooking today! Leveraging packaging technology (Tetra Pak products) for trips/long stays also goes a long way.

This list provides some food for thought. In the end, we aim to develop a taste for stopping food waste. But for starters,

GOTTA EAT’ EM ALL!

Food waste – The duality of surplus and deficit

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