Food is undervalued in our society. Two centuries of industrial revolutions and technological progress have radically transformed our economy. Along with this, our personal interests, occupations, and priorities have also shifted. In the eighteenth century, agriculture was deemed the essential means of subsistence; nowadays, it ranks in the bottom sectors of our economy. In our modern mindset, agricultural economies are associated with underveloped societies and the past; in contrast, tech companies rise as the new main players of our economy, associated with innovation and the future.
Despite this paradigm shift, we human beings inevitably depend on agriculture! That is why we have devoted our technological progress to increase its productivity, using high-yielding crops and new techniques applied since the Green Revolution. Higher productivity has become the cornerstone of modern agriculture, successfully feeding a rising population. Nevertheless, this success is shadowed when it comes to one of the biggest problem our food system faces nowadays: food waste.
You are probably aware of food waste as a phenomenon of our society. You might have seen how supermarkets throw away large amounts of food when the day ends. You might also have bought some strawberries that you forgot eating and threw them away. Apart from everyday life’s food waste, it may surprise you that food waste amounts approximately to 30% of all edible food. Believe it or not, this estimate is confirmed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and some organizations even raise it to 30-50%. According to the same organization, if food waste were a country it would rank the third largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the US.
Whichever way you look at it, food waste is a crime. It is nonsense, stupid and unnecessary. Taking into account that around 795 million people are undernourished, food waste is a big irresponsibility. On the other, food waste signifies a waste of money, roughly translated into $680 billion in industrialized countries and $310 billion in developing countries. As you will see in this article, food waste also means a waste of resources, which in turn produces a huge environmental impact.
Why food waste happens
To tackle the intolerable problem of food waste we first need to know why it happens. Hence, we need to consider all the dimensions of food waste, that is, every step along the food chain where food is likely to be wasted. In the early stages of the food chain, there are poor harvesting techniques and precarious infrastructures, such as low-quality storage conditions. Problems of transportation also occur, as well as strict requirements for market organizations and, finally, negligent practices in the consumer level.
The relevance of these causal factors varies over the different areas you take into consideration. In the developed world, around 40% of food waste is due to consumers. The food aesthetics standards promoted by marketing and advertising campaigns force producers and distributors to get rid of ‘ugly food’, meaning perfectly edible food, but not complying with our consumer standards. For example, the presence of spots in a batch of apples might lead to throwing them all away.
Other sociological factors stem from the commodification of food and the loss of contact with nature, mainly due to urbanization. As a result, some of this ‘ugly food’ might also fetch lower prices, making waste more likely as its market value is lower. In contrast, in the developing countries, lacking these strict consumer standards, most of the waste is produced in the first segments of the food supply chain, that is, during the harvesting, storage and transportation. Many farmers face financial constraints, such that the agricultural process is often rudimentary and inefficient.
The environmental impact of food waste
To estimate the effect of food waste on nature, we have to consider two aspects: the food waste itself and the waste of the resources involved in it. The process of decomposition of food waste releases methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas, therefore responsible for global warming. Besides, its heat-trapping effect is roughly 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. According to Food Waste Experts, “rotten food accounts for 34% of all methane emissions”.
The following major resources are involved in the process of food production: land, water, energy and fertilisers. Let us, now, consider them one by one.
Despite soaring productivity and higher crop yields, in the last 50 years, the expansion of land use for agriculture has reached half of all available land surface. Meat production covers the largest part since it requires much more space than vegetal crops – think of the crops needed to feed the livestock over its entire life. To put things into perspective, one hectare of land with crops of rice or potato can feed up to 22 people over one year, while if it was just devoted to beef or lamb it could only feed 1 or 2 people.
Roughly 70% of human use water is used in agriculture. Again, beef production implies on average 50 times more water use than vegetables’ use. Expecting a population of 9.5 billion people by 2050, water use could become between 2.5 and 3.5 times greater than it is today. This is explained by the projected increase of the African population and their shift to a more meat-based diet.
The production of food also requires energy inputs. For each calory of food we produce, we require on average 7 to 10 calories of energy inputs. If we break it up into plant-based crops and meat exploitations, to produce one calory of each product we need 3 and 35 calories, respectively. The consumption of energy is linked to the production of food itself, but also to its transport and the production of its fertilisers. As long as this energy comes from fossil fuels, food waste will also contribute to global warming in this way.
The generalised use of fertilisers has emerged in our modern food system. Consuming around 5% of the world gas supply, the fertiliser industry is also accountable for greenhouse gas emissions. The intensification of fertiliser manufacturing is expected to increase by 25% in 2030, worsening this trend.
What goes next
The challenge of feeding an increasing population is critical for our survival. The later we react to reducing waste, the more urgent a sustainable food system will be. Public policy and market organizations must work together to reverse this model. Apart from that, we citizens can do many things to solve it. Above all, we have to change our consumer standards and worries. Like the WRAP campaign slogan, we have to “Love Food, Hate Waste”. In addition, we have to reduce our meat consumption, the largest responsible for the ecological impact of waste.
To reduce food waste, our system has to focus on a rapid redistribution of resources, linking needs with surpluses. In Amsterdam, some initiatives already exist doing this task. To name a few, we have community dinners using leftovers food, Taste Before You Waste and The Guerrilla Kitchen (in the Robin Food Kollektief), but also restaurants, like Instock. There are also apps connecting people to companies with food surplus: Too Good to Go, ResQ Club and Olio. It is in our hands to change this system before it is too late.