Food Waste Fiasco: Breaking The Gordian Knot Of The World’s Food Supply

January 11, 2012Marketsby David Smith

Food Waste Fiasco: Breaking The Gordian Knot Of The World’s Food Supply

1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted globally every year. While carelessness is the main source of blame for food waste in the developed world, the annual food waste in developing countries often comes down to poor infrastructure development and post-harvest losses.

A few weeks before Christmas, 5,000 people gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square to eat a free meal made largely from misshapen vegetables and cosmetically imperfect fruits that British supermarkets had refused to sell. The Feeding The 5,000 Initiative was intended to highlight the food waste of supermarkets, as well as that of consumers, in the richest parts of the globe.

The scale of food waste worldwide is mind-boggling. According to a report for the UN by the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, around 1.3 billion tonnes of food is either lost, or wasted, globally each year. The figure is around a third of the world’s total food production; and the study says that reducing losses in developing countries could have an “immediate and significant” impact on livelihoods and food security.

Tristram Stuart, author of Waste, a book about the issues, and organiser of the Feeding The 5,000 event, told the Food Ethics Council’s magazine: “There are nearly a billion malnourished people in the world, but all of them could be lifted out of hunger with less than a quarter of the food wasted in Europe and North America. In a globalised food system, where we are all buying food in the same international market place, that means we’re taking food out of the mouths of the poor.”

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Stuart also calculated that the irrigation water used by farmers to grow the food, which would eventually be squandered by its unthrifty buyers, was enough to satisfy the 200-litre domestic water needs of 9 billion people, which is the United Nations’ estimate for the global population by 2050.

Further confirmation of the wretched correlation between excessive waste in rich countries, and poverty and starvation in poor ones, came in the 2011 Global Food and Farming Futures report for the British Government. 

The report showed that 925 million people worldwide suffer from hunger because they cannot get adequate supplies of the proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins required for good health. Another billion people suffer from ‘hidden hunger’, which means they are missing out on vitamins and minerals and at risk from physical and mental impairment. Meanwhile, in the richer countries, a billion people over-eat, causing epidemics of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The Government report added that the 40 million tonnes of food wasted by US households, retailers and food services each year would be enough to satisfy the hunger of the world’s starving millions.  

But establishing direct links between the first-world’s profligate approach to food and third-world poverty is a complex matter, according to Professor Peter Hazell, of the Centre for Development, Environment and Policy, at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

Professor Hazell does not share Tristram Stuart’s belief that eliminating waste in rich countries would have a dramatic influence on starvation levels in the poor world.

“I ask my students what would happen to starving families in Africa if a million westerners did not eat their hamburgers today and the answer, unfortunately, is not a lot,” he said. “There would be some beneficial effects for the environment through reduced carbon emissions, but the world’s food problems are less about quantity, and more about distribution. Basically the people who need it the most are the ones who can’t afford to buy it.”

But Professor Hazell conceded that there was a small correlation between waste in the West and higher global food prices.

“We are net exporters of food to the developing world, so the more we overeat and waste, the less we have to export, so food prices do go up, but only a little. A much greater effect was seen when the Americans removed 40 percent of their maize from the world market to make biofuels. It was such a huge amount that it became a major factor in the escalating food crisis in 2008.”

The world’s poorer nations though are not so nearly as careless with their food as Westerners. Consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as South and Southeast Asia, throw away only 6-11 kg a year compared to 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America.

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The more fundamental problem for poorer nations is “food loss”, 40 percent of which occurs at post-harvest. The annual cost of post-harvest losses in Sub-Saharan Africa, is measured in the billions of dollars and the human cost is, of course, incalculable.

The UN assessed the scale of African post-harvest losses and proposed solutions in its report Missing Food: the Case of Postharvest Grain Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report found that in Eastern and Southern Africa, food losses were $1.6 billion per year, about 13.5 percent of total grain production. Figures are unavailable for Central, or West Africa, but assuming losses of a similar magnitude, the value of post-harvest grain losses in sub-Saharan Africa could total $4 billion a year out of an estimated production worth of $27 billion. This missing food could meet the minimum annual food requirements of at least 48 million people, the report said. 

Losses occur when grain decays, or is infested by pests, fungi or microbes. But post-harvest losses also result from low prices and lack of access to markets because of disorganised supply chains and terrible transport infrastructure.  Many African farmers, for instance, live far away from good roads.

A variety of technologies can reduce post-harvest losses, including crop protectants and storage containers, such as hermetically sealed bags and metallic silos. Some of the methods which have worked well in Asia, such as small-scale rice-drying technology and the introduction of pedal threshers and rice mills, have also been adopted successfully in parts of Africa. 

Practical Action, a development non-​profit organisation that uses technology to help people gain access to clean water and sanitation and improve their food production, provides homemade clay refrigerators, known as ‘zeer pots’, which can be built from mud, clay, water and sand. 

In a zeer pot, tomatoes and carrots can last up to 20 days, while okra will last 17 days. Practical Action also provides trainings and demonstrations to teach small-​scale farmers how to make and use the pots in developing regions such as Sudan and Darfur. 

Meanwhile, in Kenya, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) teamed up with the Ministry of Agriculture to train farmers to take steps to reduce maize crop losses to mycotoxin, the by-​product of fungi growth. In Afghanistan, the FAO provided metallic silos to 18,000 households to improve post-​harvest storage. Farmers use the silos to store cereal grains and legumes, protecting these crops from weather and pests. As a result, post-​harvest losses have dropped from between 15 and 20 percent to less than 1 or 2 percent.

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