1 February 2013, 16:00

‘Food waste is probably one of the worst things for global warming’ - expert

‘Food waste is probably one of the worst things for global warming’ - expert

More than a third of the world’s entire food production is lost or wasted annually. Both the European Union and the United Nations have, separately and unanimously opted to launch their own campaigns to raise awareness of the issue. On top of that, many NGOs are already tackling waste. However, there is only one-way to go: make sure that the food gets from the farm to the fork.

A report published by the UK’s Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) in January 2013 has found that almost half of the world’s food production is thrown away, something in the order of 1.2 to 2 billion tons of food never even makes it to a plate.

It’s not just spoilt food that goes to waste but the good, fresh and nutritious kind; it simply doesn’t meet the standards of physical appearance that retailers think we want to see on the shelves, or fails to reach the consumer because of strict, and often over proscriptive, “sell-by” dates.

Most of the more developed countries in the world produce 3 to 4 times more food than their populations actually consume. It is not just food that is wasted, but also water, energy, fertilisers and labour. According to the IMechE report, 550 billion cubic meters of water are wasted around the world by growing crops that never reach the consumer.

There is also a significant environmental factor as 10% of the richest countries’ greenhouse gas emissions are from food waste. “Food waste is probably one of the worst things for global warming,” Simon Heaps, Director of the British company “Eco Food Recycling” explained to us. Actually, losses occur right the way through the food supply chain from the farm, all the way to the plate.

In the US, 40% of the food produced is never consumed, according to Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2010). In an interview with the ‘Voice of Russia’ he told us that America creates 72 billion kilos of food waste per year, which represents an estimated loss of $250 billion USD.

In Europe, the situation is hardly any better. In France, for example, every citizen throws away about 20 kilos of food a year including 7 kilos of packed food and 13 kilos of spoiled food as well as fruit and vegetables that have been allowed to go bad. In the UK, 6.7 million tons of food is wasted every year. The food that currently gets thrown away in Europe every year is enough to feed 200 million people.

However, global concerns over food waste are rising. In Europe, the major initiative is called “Fusions”, a 4-year program, funded to the tune of 4 million Euros by the European Commission, which hopes to learn more about food waste across the Union. As Tristram Stuart, who was awarded the 2011 Sophie Prize for his work on the global food waste scandal, said in an interview with the ‘Voice of Russia’: “It consists of a partnership primarily of large institutions, like research universities and large research organisations.”

Nevertheless, the concerns go way beyond Europe; Tristram Stuart continued on food waste: “It is a totally global concern. I went to Malaysia last year for a conference on food waste. A group in Kuala-Lumpur wanted to organise a “Feeding the 5000.” There are strong food waste movements in Argentina, in Brazil; people in the Middle East are also interested in the issue. We do live in a global food system. The reality is that there is a global dynamic already, but there is no Kyoto conference on food waste.”

Although the concern is growing, there is still a long way to go to reduce the sheer quantity of food that is wasted every year, as illustrated by the figures. Indeed Jonathan Bloom has noticed that in the US, “the average citizen isn’t as concerned about reducing food waste as they are about recycling. Most people don’t think of food waste as an environmental problem.”

However, concerns for the environment and food waste are connected, as Stuart observed: “Increasing global food demand is the main contributor to deforestation internationally, for instance in South America, Central Africa and South East Asia.”

On January 22, the United Nations, including notably the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the UN Environmental Program, launched a global campaign titled “Think, Eat, Save” to accelerate awareness and promote action on food waste.

Lots of non-governmental organisations are developing interesting initiatives to improve the situation. Tristram Stuart launched in 2009, in London, the project “Feeding the 5000” . As he described it: “The objective is to promote local solutions to the global problem. We do this by feeding 5000 people with food that otherwise would be wasted and by inviting any member of the public to come and join us. What we’re saying is that the solution is to eat and enjoy food instead of throwing away.” “Feeding the 5000” has already been organised in a number of European cities, but is also being set up in Nairobi and New York soon.

Moreover, Tristram Stuart and his team created a gleaning network in the UK. “It consists of bringing together volunteers and taking them to farms where farmers have left fruit in their fields. We then give that food to charitable organisations,” said Stuart. The network addresses one of the main defects in the current food system: the unnecessary focus on food appearance (size, shape, colour, gloss) by retailers. In the UK, where the project is carried out, an estimated of 20 to 40% of fruit and vegetables are rejected before they reach the shops, mainly because of excessivelly (perhaps even obsessively) strict cosmetic standards.

The food waste issue has also inspired commercial projects, like food recycling. Simon Heaps, Director of the British company “Eco Food Recycling”  describes what his group does: “We are a carrier. We just collect commercial food waste from hotels, restaurants, pubs, universities, shopping centres. It's all commercial food waste, but only commercial. We collect about 40 thousand tons a year. It then goes to anaerobic digester plants that create renewable energy.”

There are multiple ongoing initiatives to raise awareness and stop the wastage of food but the easiest solution is as simple as eating the food produced. In Stuart’s mind: “The solution to that problem is nothing more complicated than eating food rather than wasting it; and the solution is, generally speaking, compatible with the business models of enterprises. It is compatible with the global recession when people want to save money.”

Some simple actions such as buying less, freezing more and eating up your leftovers, could save considerable quantities of food that would otherwise be wasted. Feeding the world’s growing population, when so many are, quite literally dying of starvation has to be a better outcome than good, wholesome food ending up in the dumpster.

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