Supermarkets and restaurants in the United States distribute more than 2 times the food necessary to feed the entire population. So what happens to the half that’s never eaten?
Most of it, according to waste experts, ends up in landfills. That’s 50 million tonnes of perfectly edible food (worth $48 billion), according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association (FAO), that the US sends to landfills every year. The UK and Australia together dispose of more than 11 million tonnes annually, while the global edible trash heap amounts to a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes, or a third of all food produced in the world, worth an estimated $1 trillion. It is crime of biblical proportions that is finally getting the attention it deserves, but experts remind us that the real work begins at home.
Tristram Stuart, an international food waste activist and author of the book Waste, Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, said in a recent talk:
“When we’re talking about food being thrown away, we’re not talking about rotten stuff, we’re not talking about stuff that’s beyond the pale, we’re talking about good, fresh food that is being wasted on a colossal scale.”
Stuart rebuffs the idea that we need to increase food production to meet the needs of a growing population: “We’ve never had such gargantuan surpluses before. In many ways this is a great success story of human civilization. Of the agricultural surpluses that we set out to achieve twelve thousand years ago. It is a success story.”
“But we have to recognize is that we are reaching the ecological limits that our planet can bear,” he says. “We have to think about what we can start saving.”
Who’s at fault for this scandal? The industrialized world, despite the fact that it inhabits less than 1/7th of the world’s population, is responsible for over half (670 million tonnes) of all food waste globally according to ThinkEatSave, a UK-based, United Nations-funded programme working to solve the crisis. That amounts to around 100 kg of food per person annually, compared to a paltry 8 kg on average thrown away per person in the developing world.
So not only do we in the developed world lead perversely gluttonous lives that have led to rates of obesity hovering around 40% of the population (and more in some countries), but we are also throw away enormous amounts of perfectly edible food.
Households are the biggest offenders, say experts. Nearly 50% of all edible food is wasted at home, according to ThinkEatSave. And we’re all guilty of it.
And why are we throwing away so much of it? One reason is that we are simply cooking more than we can eat, or don’t use what we buy in time. Fruits and vegetables are by far the most wasted food, with somewhere between 40-50% of them thrown away. Bread is also food that is wasted in especially large quantities, while 30% of all fish goes the bin as well.
Then there’s the problem of retail standards. While only responsible for 5% of food waste, retailers routinely reject food from suppliers because of stringent appearance standards that emphasize “perfect”-looking fruit and vegetables. This too, however, is driven by consumers’ tendency to reject “ugly” fruit and vegetables, leading to their waste. The irony is that even though we only buy “perfect” food, we still end up binning half of it.
Some retailers are doing something about it. Driven by public pressure after being outed as the country’s most wasteful supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s in the UK has begun a programme that will see the proportion of its food wasted dwindle down to zero by 2020. Donating excess food to charities, buying “ugly” vegetables from suppliers, diverting waste to renewable energy solutions like anaerobic digestion technology to produce electricity for homes, and changing labeling to encourage more freezing (and hence less waste), are some of the initiatives the retailer has taken to reduce its waste-footprint.
Sainsbury’s own research has come out with several typologies of wasteful shoppers, including the Hungry Hoarder, the Ditsy Diarist, the Food Phobic, and the Separate Shopper, who together make up nearly half of all shoppers. Click here to read the article and see if you’re among them.
The question that arises out all of this is: has food simply become too cheap and plentiful?
Have we in the developed world created a food system that has supplied us with so much food at such low cost that we can seemingly afford to throw away huge quantities of perfectly edible food on a daily basis?
A world of plenty certainly does have its advantages, among them the ability to focus on human development, rather than sheer survival. But “plenty” has become terribly costly as well. And not only is our health suffering, so is the environment.
Think of the vast quantities of water, land, oil, and fertilizers, not to mention human energy, that is going to waste. The amount of carbon being released, forests being felled and pesticides and chemicals that end up in our lakes, rivers and oceans to produce more and more food to feed a burgeoning (and obese) population, despite the fact that we could feed everyone on Earth while producing less, is mind-numbing. Not insignificant either, food waste in landfill decomposes to produce methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
This crime must end. Let’s all do something about it.
Want tips to help you waste less food at home, and save more? Check out the following web pages full of great advice!