Let’s play ‘Two Truths and A Lie”
- 3 billion tons of edible food goes to waste every year.
- At least 795 million people are undernourished worldwide.
- The final season of Game of Thrones was not disappointing.
For those who had been following Game of Thrones, the answer is clear. For others, I’d like to tell you that the third one is the lie. So that means 1.3 billion tons of perfectly good food goes to waste while 795 million people across the globe go to bed hungry!
The problem is that we do not even realise the amount of food we throw away. From yesterday’s leftovers to a week old eggs, that were rotting at the back of your overcrowded refrigerator. From juices, that was a day past their ‘best-before’ dates, to fruits you found ‘too ugly to eat’, like a banana that developed those black spots or ‘bruises’, which in reality signifies the peak of the fruit’s sweetness.
Our food wastage is getting to a critical mass and much of it stems from our own habits and misconceptions. We’re all busy and on the go, and we buy food without thinking. We want to have the option to eat something at any time, whether or not we actually use it. This leads to a lot of unnecessary buying and it gets wasted as we are unable to consume it before it goes bad. We would feel a lot of remorse if we were to spill milk or drop a carton of eggs as we stepped out of the grocery store than if they were to sit in the refrigerator for a week and then we threw them away since they had gone bad.
But the consumers alone are not to blame for the food wastage. It happens at every stage from plot to plate. Food gets thrown away at the production level due to ‘produce body-shaming’ that is reflected in the food grading system. The visual grading standards set for various food items are quite superficial and because of that, even slightly sub-par fruits and vegetables don’t make it to the market. And once the fruit is labelled as ‘second-grade’, it can lose two-thirds of its market value, even though its contents are the same. Thus, a farmer does not go through the trouble to sell those and they end up in the landfills.
We don’t just reject food because of the way it looks but also out of pure fear. What would you do if you take out something from your refrigerator that you had been meaning to eat but had forgotten about, only to discover that its ‘best-before’ date passed a few days ago? If you answered it honestly, you would have let out a resentful sigh and tossed it into the garbage, better safe than sorry. We’re weirdly reverent towards these dates even though they are absolutely arbitrary. We naturally assume that these dates reflect a standard of safety, but that is not true. These dates are printed by the manufacturer and it is his guess of when that food is going to be at the best quality. And being a manufacturer, he would set those dates as tight as possible to convince people to buy the new product. Think about it; it’s not like if the ‘best-before’ date printed is 20/09/2019, it’s safe to consume the food on the 19th but not the 21st.
This is just a waste of food. Even without the moral argument for reducing food waste, there are practical reasons why tackling this problem is important. Food wastage brings with it the wastage of money associated with producing the now wasted food, wastage of the labour involved, and of the resources employed in growing, harvesting, storing, transporting and packaging it. To add insult to injury, food wastage is a major contributor to climate change. If food waste were a country, it would be the second-largest country after Russia, with an area of 14 million square kilometres, and the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China and the United States.
You might argue that being biodegradable, food thrown would decompose and enrich the soil. Well, this would be true for one apple core thrown out into the woods. The problem comes when all of the waste is aggregated and it decomposes without air in a landfill. If food decomposes without oxygen, in anaerobic conditions, it produces methane which is a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat.
However, unlike other climate change contributors like smokestacks, oil spills, vehicles etc. food wastage is one of the easiest ways to address climate change and at the same time feed more people. It is like the low-hanging fruit. It doesn’t require any new technology, just a more efficient use of what we already have. It’s best to take steps to decrease wastage at the beginning of the supply chain before all kinds of climate-harming impacts actually occur. This means that it is better to prevent surpluses of food from occurring in the first place rather than dealing with it when we’re ready to throw it out.
Understanding where along the supply chain waste happens provides opportunities for effective solutions to be implemented. In low-income countries, food is wasted during the processing and post-harvest stages because of poor infrastructure and lack of efficient storage technology. Thus, knowledge exchange, education and investment in infrastructure can cause a dramatic shift in wastage. On the other hand, in high-income countries where a large percentage of food waste occurs in the market and by consumers, changing behaviours is paramount.
Suppliers should simplify and standardize data labels so that consumers do not throw out things unnecessarily, as being over-cautious can lead to excess wastage. As a consumer, we should make conscientious decisions to purchase what we intend to eat and eat what we purchase. We must accept the fact that products can be top quality and delicious even if it has a slight imperfection in appearance. If we do have extra food, we should try to get it to people who could use it. There are a number of organisations operating across the world, for instance, Robin Hood Army, Feeding India, No Food Waste, Copia etc. who collect surplus food from restaurants, parties, homes etc. and donate it to the needy. This not only helps fight hunger but also slows down global warming. So it’s a win-win strategy.
Wasting less food isn’t going to happen overnight. But having it on our radar can really help us waste less. The idea is to encourage behaviours, and not just words mindful of the climate. It’s how to get on people’s personal agenda, rather than having them just say, “Oh that’s a shame!”