October 16 is annually celebrated as World Food Day, a celebration that was instituted by the United Nations to mark the establishment of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). For this year’s theme, attention was focused not just on eating a daily balanced diet; but also on the foods that go to waste.
According to the FAO, roughly one-third of the foods produced worldwide for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted. When you weigh this against the fact that 821 million people are living in hunger, you are bound to realize that food waste is nothing short of a catastrophe. In addition, food waste is a notorious source of greenhouse gas emissions such that were it to be a country, food waste would be the third largest emitter, just behind China and the US. With these statistics in mind, combating food waste, as ironic as it may sound, has understandably become somewhat of a global challenge.
International organizations such as the United Nations and its World Food Programme have instituted initiatives like the #StoptheWasteCampaign geared toward reducing food waste globally. In the lead up to this year’s World Food Day, the FAO published its annual State of Food and Agriculture report. The report contains fresh estimates of just how big the food waste problem is, and proffers solutions. The report also provides guidance and suggestions for countries on policies and interventions that can reduce food loss and food waste. The FAO makes a distinction between food loss and food waste. Food loss occurs from the stage when foods are harvested up until the moment when they are sold; while food waste occurs from the sales of foods up to their consumption.
In this regard, when it comes to reducing food waste, South Korea has proven to be the unparalleled pace setter. Using a combination of advanced technology and stringent government policies, South Korea has managed to attain a 95% recycle-rate for food waste.
The French government in 2016 announced a food waste law that mandated restaurants and supermarkets to donate all unsold food rather than throw them away.
The moves by these countries are great moves, and while we hope more countries and private corporations follow their examples, progress has been slow. One of the reasons for this is, in the face of the intense security threats and the deplorable economic conditions constantly being tackled by most countries, food waste is barely regarded as a serious threat.
And since food waste reduction on a national level continually proves difficult to achieve, perhaps an attainable approach could be to target the basic unit of society; individuals and households. As far as I know, an astonishing number of people do not actually like to waste food. Social and religious doctrines all encourage us to be less wasteful with our resources especially since there are hundreds if not thousands of people living in our communities amongst us in hunger. This means that given the opportunity, most people would rather give out their excess foods (to those in need) rather than waste it. It really is the right and ideal thing to do, but in practical terms it can be quite challenging as well.
For instance, just how do you ask your neighbor if he/she would love to take your soon-to-spoil bunch of bananas? Do you just pack up your leftover meals and go looking for homeless people? Just where do you expect to find them? What if people think you ‘too proud’ for giving others ‘scraps’ from your kitchen? And what if, given the often deplorable state of some online communities, you are publicly shamed for your efforts? I mean, nobody wants to be seen as the arrogant fellow giving out ‘scraps’, just like nobody wants to be seen receiving those ‘scraps’ either.
The nearest Salvation Army Store are happy to take your preloved clothes off your hands without anyone blinking an eye, but we can’t say the same for food. So in the end, it becomes easier to simply wrap up excess foods and toss them in the garbage.
Systems for moving excess food from your kitchen to those who need it exist sparingly and we need to create more of these avenues. In many parts of Africa, these food-sharing systems exist informally, and are manned by local personnel. For instance, growing up in a small village, there was always a relative or an older person next door that we could package and share our extra meals very easily with. Now that I live in Nigeria’s capital city of Abuja, this is still somewhat doable but a bit more difficult. It is not uncommon to have little knowledge or contact with your neighbors. But even when you know that he/she could do with that extra plate of food you are about to throw away, it starts to seem intrusive to offer or pry into your neighbor’s life in this way.
The solution I think is for us to bring convenience to the process of food gifting. This could be through community programs or with the use of technology. One community in Forest Row, East Sussex in the UK is leading the way, developing a volunteer-led food fridge program. Residents are encouraged to bring any food they don’t need and other people can come and take it from there. A different approach could be through tech; most of our daily activities have already been made easier and more convenient by this system anyway. Alongside the plethora of sustainable lifestyle apps now available, there are plenty of food waste apps now available to improve the local food sharing economy and reduce food waste by restaurants, cafes, supermarkets, green grocers and households.
We all love convenience and systems that make it easier for us to hand off our excess foods rather than waste them will help to combat the global issue of food waste. We already have platforms for gifting, trading or simply swapping clothes– so we can create a few for sharing meals as well. Curbing food waste is a collective, not just an individual, effort. Startups, nonprofits and municipal governments should create food waste apps while the rest of us take part in local food-sharing programs. We each have a role to play, and regardless of how busy or insignificant you think you are, there is always something you can do to tackle food waste in your neighborhood.
Or at the very least, in your home.
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Title image of food waste by Andrea Leganza.