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Waste not, want not

  • Published at 06:11 pm June 4th, 2013
Waste not, want not

The theme set for for World Environment Day 2013 is “Think. Eat. Save.” The adoption of this theme is of significance today, but is paramount in addressing sustainability in the future.

The FAO estimate of 1.3bn tonnes of food wastage per annum is startling. As children we are taught to never waste food, but much of the food represented in the aforementioned figure is wasted far before it makes its way on to our plates. Waste of this manner can be accredited to the market economy we remain ensconced in.

Food loss takes place at the harvest, postharvest and processing stages of the food supply chain. The accumulated losses in different sections of the food production chain is known as food wastage.

Integrating the concept of food waste into the theme of UN Environment Day reveals the importance of the loss of resources and inputs used in the production of food. As a result, farmers may not be able to yield an equitable harvest because of resultant shortcomings.

If food is wasted, all the resources and inputs that went into the production of that food is lost. If 1/3 of the food is lost, then the greenhouse gases and the onerous usage of water used to produce the food is emitted for no reason at all. In the light of environmental degradation and climate change, these issues will continue to gain importance. In fact, global food production occupies 25% of all habitable land and is responsible for 70% of fresh water consumption, 80% of deforestation, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and land-use changes.

Focusing on inequalities in food production, Vandana Shiva made the following comment on the fact that 1.3bn tonnes of food is wasted: “Such ecological destruction of natural capital is justified in terms of ‘feeding people.’ Yet hunger has grown … people are permanently hungry. Another two billion suffer from food related conditions like obesity. When the focus is production of commodities for trade, instead of food for nourishment, hunger and malnutrition result.”

A review of some of the major causes of waste sheds light on the problems created by the market economy. For example, in developed countries producers will try to maintain delivery of agreed quantities while managing risks, by growing more crops than needed. The risk of pest attacks and climate variability are almost always accounted for, when planning the next harvest. When average conditions follow, there is a surplus amount of produce. The excess produce is often used as animal feed, but profit margins slide.

Another common reason for food wastage is because minimum standards deem some produce as “unsafe.” If producers fail to meet benchmarks, the crops are thrown away. Toxins in food, contaminated water, abuse of pesticides and drug residues are the usual culprits behind failing to meet standards. The produce on the shelves of supermarkets needs to look a certain way. Supermarkets tend to uphold the appearance factor of all fresh produce.

To maintain standards some products are rejected as supermarkets refuse to buy rounded carrots, yellowed limes and courgettes weighing the same as a pumpkin. Thus a lot of produce is left at the farm to rot.

To keep up with the hype of supermarkets, producers often trim items to ensure the end product ends up in the right size, shape and proportion. These practices lead to lowering nutritional value of the products as large portions are discarded.

Experts cite that with economic growth, one can simply afford to waste food. The amount of food available per person in retail stores and restaurants has increased both in the US and the EU. Buffet restaurants and buy one get one free deals are a big part of this wastage.

The problems at the producer level arise in that nature gives us oddly shaped vegetables at times, had the established system been more attuned to nature, instead of focusing on the superficial, perhaps supermarkets would be selling those items.

The current reliance on packaging was not always necessary, but has become a part of our lifestyle. Food is no longer a source of survival, it is also a representation of social status – where throwing away food is a sign of affluence.

If the global food system were less corporatized and more focused on nature, would the wastage of food have been less? The question cannot be answered clearly because such a system is unknown and unseen.

Rather, the market economy, which has driven food wastage, should be re-examined. Market based solutions could be the remedy to this growing crisis. 

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