Love food, hate waste
In ‘Food For Thought,’ we highlight some aspects of the stuff we put in our body that many of us overlook. Today, it’s how the misallocation of the food we produce is leading to waste, where that waste occurs, and how we can minimise it.
Food is the lifeblood of our being. It is what powers our bodies and keeps us healthy. Entire infrastructures exist solely for the purpose of distributing food, and food is the focal point of entire cultures. Put two people together from two different corners of the globe and you can guarantee that food is one thing they have in common.
Food is also big business: in Australia alone, food and beverage processing accounted for 23.6 billion dollars of the national GDP in the 2010 -2011 period, and employed nearly 228,000 people. According to the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, the world produces around 4 billion metric tonnes of food every year. This amount of food requires huge infrastructure to produce, transport, process, and sell.
You might like to think that, with all that food being produced, the vast majority of it would be used where it’s needed.
There are, after all, seven billion people on Earth, all of whom need energy and nutrition. But the grim reality is that we waste between 30 and 50% of all the food produced globally (as estimated by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers). That’s roughly 1.2 to 2 billion tonnes of food. Clearly there’s a leak in the system.
So why all the waste? Why is all this food, which we expend energy, money and labour to produce, not reaching peoples’ mouths like it’s supposed to? The reasons are numerous, and all are dependent on where in the world the waste occurs. In less-developed countries like those in sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, the problem lies at the agricultural end of the production line. Inefficient harvesting, storage and transport systems all result in food being spoiled by bruising, mould and pests. Moving to more developed countries, food waste tends to occur at the consumer rather than production level.
While more efficient farming, storing and transportation practices ensures that a lot less food is wasted at the producer end of the supply chain, supermarket policies and poor household management of food results in the majority of food wastage in developed countries. Supermarkets, at the whim of consumers, often enact strict policies on size and appearance of fruits and vegetables, and so produce which does not adhere to these policies are rejected. Ever wonder why all those oranges look so perfectly round?
This isn’t simply a waste of food either. Wasted food translates to wasted water, wasted energy and wasted land. When framed against the world’s rising population, which is predicted to peak at around 9.5 billion in 2075, this waste of precious resources becomes a dire concern. Of the 10 Gha of land available (that’s global hectares, a measurement of the biologically productive areas on Earth), 4.9 Gha is currently being used for global food production. Any increase in that figure is likely to impact severely on the already struggling ecosystems around the world. With water resources, too, we are pushing our luck. About 70% of the 3.8 trillion cubic metres humans use annually goes to agriculture. With the rising population and greater demand for food, this figure can only increase. By the middle of this century, it is projected that total freshwater use will be 2.5 to 3.5 times what it is today.
So. You want to do something about food waste. Where do you start? While a lot of food is wasted on an industrial scale, food is also wasted at home. This is where you, the consumer, can make a difference. Menu planning is a big way you can change how much food you throw away; by only buying what you have planned to use in meals, you will reduce excess, needless purchasing of food which would otherwise go unused, as well as reducing the quantity of food you buy. Taking stock and making a detailed list of what food you already have in your pantry is another way to reduce your buying of excess food, as knowing what you do have means you won’t double up on items. Learning how to preserve fruits and vegetables is also a way to reduce waste; take some time to learn some jam, pickle and relish recipes, so the next time you do have a bounteous harvest of fruit, you know what to do with them. (For the more adventurous of you, there’s always dumpster diving.)
Food is a precious resource, and it should be treated as such. With a constantly expanding population, and dwindling resources and land to grow food on, there couldn’t be a more pertinent time to crack down on food waste. So next time you’ve got oranges coming out of your ears, consider cooking up a jar of marmalade or two.
Johnny Crouch is a psychogeographer and writer based in Perth. He finds himself preoccupied with the future.
(Top image from Kaptain Kobold)