The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 820 million people worldwide were already undernourished when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. This included 135 million people experiencing acute food insecurity. And yet, we lose around 30 percent of all food produced for human consumption globally. That’s 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste…
Food waste happens throughout the food system: from production and processing, to retail and consumption. In this post, we’re going to investigate the main causes and a few solutions. This includes action you can take right where you are. Because, if we could save just a quarter of the food that is currently lost, we would be able to feed 870 million hungry people.
Main Sources of Food Waste
In developing nations, the biggest food losses happen during production. The lack of basic resources – labour, transport, technology – plays a major role. Additionally, poor farmers that are driven by need may harvest crops too early, reducing the economic and nutritional value of the crop.
By contrast, farmers in developed countries produce excess food as a buffer against poor weather or pest attacks. They often simply dump or plow over any surplus.
Inadequate market systems in emerging nations lead to significant food waste. For example, unsuitable transportation in hot climates causes fresh produce to spoil. Additionally, overcrowded, unhygienic markets often lack refrigeration.
During processing, graders discard produce that is too small, oddly shaped, off color, or blemished – a practice called “culling”. This is a problem that occurs at all levels of the food system, from the farm to the home. Although it happens worldwide, it’s a bigger issue in developed nations.
In South Africa, the retail supply chain is responsible for a staggering 95% of the country’s food waste. At the same time, undernourishment plagues one in four citizens.
Besides culling edible food, retailers regularly overstock. In other words, they display masses of products that don’t sell before their expiry date. In fact, dated labels themselves are a problem. Consumers waste up to 20 percent of safe, edible food because inconsistent expiry dates on packages confuse them.
In developed nations, food is often lost after it reaches the consumer – about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) per person per year.
Most household food waste is caused by food not being used before it goes bad. Generally, bulk purchases and impulse buying are major factors. Over-preparation is the other main cause of food waste at home. Households can’t finish bigger portions and larger meals and often forget about leftovers.
Strategies for Trashing Food Waste
Food banking systems collect surplus food and give it to the people who need it most. They achieve this by engaging governments, businesses and civil society. Food banks receive donated food from farms, manufacturers, the retail supply chain and consumers. Subsequently, they distribute it through an established network of community agencies. These include school feeding programs, food pantries, soup kitchens, hospices and substance abuse clinics.
Examples of successful food banking include:
- Cambio Verde in Brazil rewards recycling with surplus fresh produce
- FoodForwardSA in South Africa recovers retail surplus for distribution to the poor
- The Global Food Banking Network builds capacity for food banking worldwide
One way of dealing with food waste is to create less of it. There are many things that the average consumer can do towards this worthy cause. Here are some ideas to inspire you:
- Do food shopping on a full stomach to avoid wasteful impulse buys. Simple, but effective!
- Use meal plans & lists to organise your food shopping. Not only will you save food and money, but you’ll take the guesswork out of cooking too.
- Shop for ugly produce! Buy surplus directly from farmers or a local business like Misfits Market.
- Buy less at a time and shop more often. This will prevent perishable stock from building up in your fridge.
- Learn to decode dated labels. Basically, food is still safe to eat before the “Use By” date. However, it might lose some of its freshness and good looks before that.
- Avoid over-catering. Plan sensible portion sizes and only cook as much as you need for one meal.
- Store your perishable food properly. Predictably, storage temperature and humidity are crucial aspects. What the food is stored in also matters though.
- Process & preserve surplus. If you want to buy bulk, save some of it for later by freezing, dehydrating, canning or pickling it.
- Compost food scraps. This is an economical and responsible way to reduce food waste and your home’s environmental impact. Specially designed compost bins make this easier (and better smelling) than ever.
- Grow your own food. Some herbs and leafy vegetables like spinach regenerate as you harvest them, so you can pick only as much as you need for a meal.
You can Make a Difference
It’s tempting to think that the food we discard at home is trivial and that small changes won’t have much of an effect. But the truth is that households are responsible for most of the food waste in the world. All our “trivial” contributions add up to create a massive problem with dire consequences.
The good news is that the “small” changes we’re able to make will also add up and have a meaningful impact. Let us know in the comments how you manage food waste at home, or how you plan to improve it.