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  • Mridul Mittal

Sustainability and Food Waste

Updated: May 22, 2019

Last year UN Secretary General Ban Ki – Moon sat down for a lunch meeting with 30 leaders across the world and here is what they ate –

Landfill Salad was made from vegetable scraps, rejected apples, pears and chickpea water.

Burger and Fries made from off-grade vegetables, repurposed bread bun, bruised beet ketchup, pickled cucumber scraps, and cow corn fries.

Why did UN serve a lunch out of food scraps? Even an impoverished man would try and serve something fresh to his guests, wouldn’t he? And United Nations is not impoverished by any measure that they should forage food out of scraps, is it?

“Our lunch was produced from food that would otherwise end up in landfills, emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Food production and agriculture contribute as much to climate change as transportation,” the U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki – Moon. “Yet more than a third of all food produced worldwide — over 1 billion tons of edible food each year — goes to waste. That is shameful when so many people suffer from hunger.”

Ergo, the trash lunch. It was meant to highlight the fact that third of produced food is wasted.

While UN leaders relished the lunch that would have otherwise ended in the landfill, they did give us a very important message – Don’t waste food.

Implications of Food Waste

There are many things that we take for granted and food wastage is one of them. We do not think twice before tossing the food into the dustbin and worst of all we do not realize that discarded food fills the landfills producing methane that increases the greenhouse effect thereby influencing climate change.

Methane is twenty-one times more potent than carbon-di-oxide and landfills in US account for 20% of methane emissions in the country. Overall 34% of US’s greenhouse emissions occur due to food waste!

Here is what wasting food really means –

Wastage of soil fertilityLoss of freshwaterLoss of ecosystemLoss of food that could have fed someone (or many someones)

Alarming Statistics of Food Waste

According to UN figures, 28% of agricultural land in the world produces food that is either lost or wasted and here is the alarming bit – over 3.3 billion tons of carbon that is produced from this waste is currently responsible for the climate change.

According to United Nations if this food waste was a country it would be the third biggest polluter in the world after China and United States!

Isn’t this horrendous?

Here are a few facts to chew on –

Food losses and waste in the US amounts roughly to $680 billion in developed countries and around $310 billion in developing nations. Statistics reveal that global quantitative food losses and waste annually are around 30% for cereals, 40 – 50% for root crops, fruits, and vegetables, 20% for oilseeds, meat and dairy and 35% fo fish.

The food that is lost or wasted annually in the world roughly amounts to half of world’s annual cereal crop!

Here is another statistic that is absolutely heartbreaking –

Did you know that every year consumers in rich countries waste around 222 million tons of food which are equivalent to the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa?

In other words, this means, more developed the nation is, more food it wastes!

On the other hand in developing nations 40% of losses happen during the harvest and in industrialized countries, 40% of losses happens in the retail and consumer level.

According to a recent study conducted by United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the food wastage in Developing nations happens in the early stages of the food value chain. Technical, financial and managerial constraints in the harvesting process are the main reason behind this wastage. This can, however, be rectified by strengthening the supply chain by directly supporting the farmers and by investing in infrastructure and educating them about the best practices in harvesting, transporting and storage. Investing in the expansion of food and package industry too can help reduce the amount of food wastage in developing countries.

In the developed nations (medium and high-income countries) food wastage occurs in the later stages of the food supply chain. At the retail level, food wastage happens due to quality standards of the food’s appearance. Lack of coordination in the food supply chain process is the main contributing factor that leads to wastage here. An increase in awareness is the need of the hour, especially in the developed nations.

Thiruvalluvar’s Great Lesson about Food Wastage

Have you heard of Thiruvalluvar’s one of the most revered Tamil poet-saints in South India? His work of ethics Thirukural is considered to be one of the best literature written during the Sangam Period.

Now you may wonder why I am suddenly invoking Thiruvalluvar. Let me narrate a small story about this man.

Every day when he sat down for his meal he would ask his wife Vasuki to keep a couch filled with water and a needle next to his banana leaf. His devoted wife dutifully fulfilled his request for every meal though she didn’t know what purpose they served. One day, she asked her husband about it and this was his answer.

“Each and every cereal grain that we eat is precious and valuable. It is a tool for our life, health, and growth. We should treat it with respect. While serving food, if one grain had fallen out of the banana leaf I would have used the needle to pick it up and would have cleaned it in the couch and then eaten it.”

That’s the level of respect that one needs to show towards the food that we eat!

Today we see developed nations wasting food that could have fed countless hungry mouths of another country. Wastage of food is a global problem, however, unethical food wastage can almost be called as crime against humanity and not to mention the environment.

Do you know countries like the USA spends $165 billion dollars annually by producing food that is not eaten? What is worse than that is the fact that US spends $750 million in disposing of this food that is never eaten?

I am sure Thiruvalluvar would turn in his grave a thousand times over if he comes to know about this!

The way forward

The way forward is pretty simple. Let’s not waste food. Period.

Let me tell you all about this Supermarket in Netherlands, Rotterdam called Swingmarket. A non-profit experiment, Swingmarket stocks food and other necessary items like any other Supermarket in the city but with a difference. They give out a special debit card to those who really need the food and can’t afford to pay for it. Recommended by social workers, police, and social welfare organizations, people who carry the special debit cards get to take away the leftovers of food that is normally thrown away.

Research tells that there are two reasons why food is wasted at the retail level. First and foremost reason is that of quality. The food company that produces the product sets an expiry date on it and the store adheres to it even if it knows that the food would hold good, way past the date. That said, there is also the inevitable fear of getting sued for giving away that might make people sick. The second problem is that of logistics. Most retail stores don’t have space to store food that is past its date and nor do they know where or who to donate it. Thankfully Swingmarket made it past these hurdles by associating themselves with nonprofit organizations that have access to people who need the food.

I heard another bit of encouraging news. As of today, France has become the first country to ban supermarkets from throwing away unsold food. They have been asked to donate it to food banks and charities.

This law was the result of unmitigated campaigns against food waste by anti-poverty campaigners in the country and its result was fantastic. With this law in force, Supermarkets cannot get rid of food that is nearing ‘best buy date’ by dumping them in the bin… or by deliberately spoiling them so that food volunteers do not take it (yes they were doing it) or by dousing them in fire (which would make anyone angry).

Now Supermarket owners will need to sign up donation contract with charities or face a penalty of €3,750. In France, 67% of food was binned by consumers, 15% by restaurants and 11% by shops and this crucial law will now hopefully remove that retail angle from this statistics.

Another encouraging factor is that the food campaigners in France are now hoping to persuade the European Union to adopt similar legislations in their member states.

Here is yet another example that can be adopted. Denmark has a new grocery store called Wefood. So what’s so special about it?

It sells food that other Supermarket throws!

Wefood receives food that is past the ‘best buy date’ from other supermarkets that do not sell it to their consumers. Since most companies mark the ‘best buy’ date cautiously and conservatively, products (European and American markets) are relatively safe to eat even after the expiry date is past. Grocery stores like Wefood have realized the futility of throwing away good food and are helping hundreds of people to live with dignity and sleep with a full belly. Goods at Wefood are 30 – 50% cheaper than in other supermarkets and their consumers who belong to the low-income group can afford it easily.

Let me give you yet another example… this time something close to home.

In Kochi, there is a restaurant called Pappada Vada and they have come up with a unique idea to feed the poor – with dignity. The restaurant stocks the fridge with food packets and is also encouraging their neighborhood to leave food that is cooked in excess and fresh in the fridge to help the homeless and struggling to feed their hunger.

Such a simple idea but yet so powerful! If only we could have such fridges in every street of our country food wastage and carbon footprint will drastically come down.