BY JOSE R. NAVARRETE: Think about the last time you threw away a perfectly good piece of food. Did you toss it from your fridge solely based on a “better by” date that had passed? Do you pick your fruits and vegetables based only on how they look? Do you often purchase more food than you need only to find yourself disposing of it? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, it is time for you to think differently about the way that you consume food.
The issue of food security is one of the greatest challenges that the international community faces today. According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between 2011 and 2013, one-eighth of the world’s population—842 million people—suffered from chronic hunger. In other words, they were unable to get enough food to meet their dietary energy requirements.
Traditionally, the discussion of food security has been centered in how to create more efficient domestic food production systems through technological and financial investment. Likewise, the creation of effective social safety net programs, such as food vouchers or cash transfers, has been an important part of the discussion, as they help to protect the poorest households from unexpected food shocks. Yet, the food security discussion often neglects the role of consumer behavior in the overall efficiency of the global food system.
The issue becomes even more complex when we look to the future. Estimates show that by 2050 the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion people, a 34 percent increase from today. In order to meet this growing food demand, global food production will need to grow even more, by 60 percent, as a result of dietary changes that are a consequence of increasing incomes. Moreover, such growth in production must result from the same amount of cultivable land that is available today, in an increasingly volatile ecological environment.
This situation might be less troubling if so much of our global food supply wasn’t wasted. Indeed, the great tragedy of food security is the fact that less than 70 percent of the food that is produced worldwide is actually eaten. According to a study conducted by the FAO, about one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost at some point on the food value chain, totaling 1.3 billion tons of wasted, edible food every year. This has great economic impacts, as the estimated value of the annual world food waste is $750 billion. Not surprisingly, it also affects the global climate and supply of natural resources. The FAO estimates that the associated environmental costs of food waste are 1.4 billion hectares of land, 250 cubic meters of water, and 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Only the United States and China generate more greenhouse gas emissions than the amount associated with food waste.
The geographic trends of per capita food waste around the world correlate with the level of economic development, where industrialized countries have a higher waste rate than developing countries. Specifically, per capita food waste in North America and Europe is estimated to be between 95 and 115 kilograms annually, while in South and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, waste is estimated to be between six and 11 kilograms each year.
Similarly, food waste occurs at different stages of the value chain in industrialized and developing countries. Globally, the FAO estimates that 54 percent of food waste is generated at the “upstream” stages, namely crop production and harvest, post-harvest, and storage. The remainder occurs “downstream”—during food processing, distribution, and consumption. In developing countries, food losses primarily occur upstream, a consequence of deficient production and harvest technologies, poor post-harvest infrastructure (such as cold storage facilities), and climate impacts. In high-income countries, however, food waste occurs mostly downstream.
In these countries, both food processors and consumers contribute to food waste. With respect to food suppliers, the major problem is a patchwork of heterogeneous and confusing food expiration date labeling practices. According to a recent study from the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 90 percent of Americans may be precipitately throwing food away because they misunderstand food labels as signs of food safety. The report concludes that the lack of a standardized labeling system creates a convoluted environment for manufacturers and businesses that ultimately undermines the original purpose of labeling. A great example is the “sell by,” “best before” and “use by” denominations, which are meant for stock and inventory purposes but are often misinterpreted by the consumer as expiration dates.
From the consumer perspective, the issue is more complicated because it involves deeply rooted cultural and social norms, or at least deeply ingrained consumer habits. Consumers in middle and high-income countries often put excessive emphasis on the visible characteristics of produce, often disregarding “ugly” fruits and vegetables even though they are perfectly safe and edible. Bad purchasing planning and impulsive purchasing habits also contribute to food waste, as well as excessive serving sizes, poor food inventory management, and lack of in-house composting.
The challenge for both public and private actors is to articulate policies that enable a more efficient and transparent process along the value chain. These include clearer labeling and expiration dates policies, food waste legislation aimed at households and businesses, stronger recycling and composting policies, and educational programs designed to bring visibility to the issue and modify consumer behavior. Our challenge as consumers is to rethink the way we purchase and consume food, adopting more sustainable consumption habits. Making more efficient use of leftovers, relaxing our demand for only “perfect” fruits and vegetables, making sure our fridge works correctly, composting, and designing a weekly menu plan are individual actions we can adopt that would significantly reduce food waste.
So next time you find yourself in the grocery store about to take advantage of a “nine for the price of two” deal on bananas, even though you know you won’t eat them all, or in a restaurant about to order that two pound you know you won’t finish, please consider the environmental, economic, and social consequences of the amount of food we waste. In a world where one in seven people go to bed hungry every day and 1.4 million children die of hunger related issues every year, we are morally obligated to behave responsibly as consumers. Small steps change the world.