Food Waste - Changing the narrative from problems to solutions
Most of you are familiar with the pressing environmental challenges facing the world today. Many of you are also aware that changing what we eat and how we eat are critical factors in reducing the pressure on the planet, preventing the loss of biodiversity, and securing a sustainable-development path in global food security. Perhaps less known, however, that the food we are not even eating constitutes a major part of the current challenges with our broken food system.
This article gives insight into the scale of today’s food waste and urges each one of us to decrease the amount of food we waste in our own homes. Finally, recognising it is high time to change the narrative from problems to solutions, this article gives hands-on tips on how you can combat the crisis in your own daily life and, beyond just limiting the food that ends up in the bin, take action to create significant, sustainable changes.
The United Nations’ sustainable-food goal aims to half the food wasted globally in this decade (United Nations, 2022). Reaching this target will contribute to the elimination of food insecurity and world hunger, help combat the pernicious effects on climate change as well as promote the sustainability of ecosystems on land and sea (Ibid).
Environment – Every year, close to 1.3 billion tonnes of food produce go either lost during the supply chain or are wasted at the retail or consumer level (UN Environmental Programme, 2022). A number of this size is almost impossible to fathom. To put it into some sort of conceivable context, an elephant weighs around 4.5 tons. Each year, we thus waste the equivalent weight of close to 300 million elephants, or almost 800 thousand elephants a day[DC1] !
This represents between eight-to-ten percent of global carbon emissions (ibid). The report also underlines the claim that reducing food loss and food waste is paramount to decreasing the environmental footprint of food production activities, as well as alleviate the strain on the natural environment. This is because we are also wasting the energy and effort that went into producing that food, not to mention the finite, precious natural resources, such as water, land, seeds, and feed. Add to that the high cost to the environment for processing, transporting, and storing the food, there is no doubt that wasting food increases greenhouse-gas emissions, thereby negatively impacting climate change (Ibid).
Food security – Reducing food waste is also essential to improving food security for many vulnerable groups. Did you know that in 2020, one in ten people in the world went to bed hungry every night (Whiting, 2022)? That means in a classroom of twenty, two kids will go to bed hungry each night. Is that acceptable? By cutting down the amount of food we waste, we show respect for the fact that food is not just a given for everyone, thereby contributing to the prevention of hunger and starvation.
If just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world (UN Environmental Programme, 2022). When considering this fact, it becomes quite clear that how we manage our food waste can hugely impact one of the most fundamental human needs for survival – for better or for worse.
Indeed, the current crisis in the Ukraine is likely to worsen the food-security issue. Ukraine is an exporter of several essential food products. The disruption caused by the war is already having a significant impact on the global food supply chain, causing a rise in global food prices (World Food Programme , 2022).
This situation only serves to exacerbate global food-market vulnerabilities already brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, which, in turn, intensified global world hunger (Ibid). Those afflicted the worst are the most vulnerable, including hunger hotspots, such as in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen (Center for Disaster Philanthropy, 2022).
But did you know that more than half of this waste actually occurs in our own homes (Marchant, 2021)? There is no question that we consumers are a major part of the problem. On the flipside, however, this also means that we can all become a core part of the solution.
Populations who commit the most food waste live in the developed parts of the world; i.e. Europe and North America. There, the waste per capita is on average 95 to 115 kilograms a year. In sub-Sahara Africa, South and Southeast Asia, food waste per capita amounts to a mere 6 to 11 kilograms a year – a whopping 94 percent less (Ibid)!
Fruit and vegetables are the food group that have the highest wastage, followed by roots and tubers – with roughly 50 percent or all being wasted annually (World Food Programme , 2022).
Following a panel discussion organised by the faculty at Boston University’s Gastronomy and Food StudiesProgram on how to advance food waste reduction in a ‘transformational manner’, eight key take-aways were presented (Finn, 2021) – four of which directly concern us as end consumers
(1) We need a more sustainable food system
2) Change the culture of abundance
(3) Adopt an action focus
(4) Make food waste a safe conversation
(5) Be mindful, be responsible
(6) Address risk, address doubt
(7) Embrace the connective power of food
The second key take-away is about moving away from our current ‘culture of abundance’ and progressing towards a culture that shows greater food responsibility. Several matters underpin this ‘abundance’ problem in light of food waste.
Firstly, portion sizes are found to be a significant contributing factor (Berkowitz, 2016). As a result of “cooking too much” or “too much being served”, a UK household wastes the equivalent of eight meals a week on average, racking up a total of over a million tonnes of food waste annually (WRAP, 2020).
Second is the issue of over-ordering. Okumus et al. (2020) explain that “in some [developed] countries, over-ordering is an ongoing issue and drives food waste caused by ‘individuals’ eating habits, cultural context and food availability”.
In a recent survey conducted by Youthplomacy on the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on eating habits, a significant increase was found in the take-away food consumption due to people spending more time at home. So, it’s not just about wasting food that we ourselves have prepared too much of. It is also the portion sizes and the habit of over-ordering that is of growing concern in the take-away food category of our total food consumption. But how big is this problem?
The results from research conducted by Just Eat and The Sustainable Restaurant Association show that in the UK alone last year, £1.8 billion in take-away food was wasted, with over 77 percent occurring at the householdlevel – at a value of £1.4 billion. This figure represents 16 percent of all take-away food ending up in the bin (Hubbub, 2022).
To this end, a pilot study entitled ‘The Food Waste Race’ was created which involved 72 participants in a collaboration between Just Eat and Hubbub, the latter an ‘award-winning environmental organisation that run campaigns to encourage positive everyday actions for the environment’ (Hubbub and JustEat, 2022).
The study comprised information and support on how to “reinvent” leftover take-aways by sharing tips and hacks on TikTok-style videos as well as creating a virtual community space to challenge perceptions about takeaways and food waste (including giving participants the knowledge and confidence to eat left-overs safely the next day) (Ibid).
The results from the pilot demonstrated an overall reduction of wasted take-away foods by 10 percent (from 16 percent to 6 percent), with 92 percent of those involved wasting less and more than eight in ten participants reported wasting fewer groceries overall (Ibid).
These learnings feed into key take-away ‘Be mindful, be responsible’ as it concerns the importance of considering food that would be thrown away as a resource that still has value and that with some extra thought, instead of being discarded, could be given additional life. Indeed, (WRAP, 2019) found that in the UK alone, close to 2 million tonnes of food is thrown away for reasons, such as: ‘fussy eating, accidents, personal preference and more’. A follow-up survey (2020) found that the main reason for food being thrown away is not being eaten in time. In 2020, 1.9 million tonnes of food were thrown away in UK households for this reason alone.
In this vein, the sixth key takeaway calls for ways to mitigate this problem; an obvious one being knowing how to store your food properly. By moving older products to the front of the fridge and cupboards and new ones to the back, using airtight containers to prolong the life of your fresh produce and sealing dry packets of food tightly to stop bugs from spoiling them are ways to counter this issue.
Understanding food labels is also of importance. For example, a clear distinction needs to be made between “best before” and “use-by” dates. Most foods are completely safe to consume past the “best before” date, whereas the latter indicates when they’re no longer safe to eat. Since half of all fruit and vegetables grown annually is thrown away, it is here where we can make a big difference by simply being more mindful of the additional uses of fruit and vegetables, even when they no longer measure up to ‘cosmetic’ standards.
By this is meant that an effort should be made to not automatically discard bruised or ‘defected’ fruit and vegetables. Instead, cut off the bad parts and put the remaining good parts to use. Mature fruits are great for smoothies; vegetables that have gone a little soft still make for a delicious soup or stir-fry or could be safely and deliciously roasted in the oven.
There are also many parts of common vegetables that people consider as scraps that are perfectly fine to eat. The leafy greens on top of the carrots, radishes, beetroots, and the green part of leeks can be a tasty addition to soups, curries, added to a home-made pesto or sautéed with onion and garlic as a tasty side dish.
Broccoli stalks, although a bit tougher than their florets, are a perfect crunchy addition to a stir-fry or can be shaven and added raw to add bite to your favourite summer salad. Skins from potato and other root vegetable are packed with minerals and nutrients. Avoid peeling them or roast them in the oven with some olive oil and salt to make mouth-watering vegetable crisps.
Toasting seeds from pumpkins and other squashes also make for a delicious and healthy, savoury snack. Pumpkin seeds contain numerous essential nutrients and vitamins, including the nowadays much lacking magnesium, and iron. The sky is the limit, with the Internet chock-full of inspiration on how to make a tasty treasure out of food that shouldn’t be considered as trash in the first place.
If you’re sure the fruits or vegetables in question no longer have any value, do not dispose of them in the bin. Rather, compost them, giving back important nutrients to the soil. In doing so, you’re contributing to improving soil health – yet another pressing agriculture issue today.
Besides buying and ordering less food, proper storing learning some leftover-hacks, planning your meals also contributes to wasting a lot less. Making and sticking to a shopping list, avoiding impulse purchases, and not falling for promotional tactics, such as ‘buy one get one free’, not only make a big difference in the amount of food that, often unnecessarily, ends up in the bin, but also make wages go further. The average UK family of four can save up to £60 per month by reducing their food waste (WRAP, 2018).
The seventh key take-away, ‘Embrace the connective power of food’, demonstrates how food is not only a ‘binding component’ across countries and cultures, but more so, how food waste is a ‘nexus issue’, connected to many of the world’s biggest problems today, e.g. climate change, the loss of biodiversity, pollution and starvation, to name a few. Here, the panel stressed that we should be thankful as better managing food waste provides us with “one big button to push to bring positive outcomes to multiple sustainability needs” (Finn, 2021).
In this vein, the results from the Food Waste Race Study mentioned earlier showed that cutting food waste also brought about other sustainable behavioural changes. Three months after the end of the study, participants reported that besides wasting less take-away food, 82 percent were wasting less food from groceries and a mighty 71 percent were making better choices for the environment in other areas of their lives; for example, walking more and using the car less (Hubbub and JustEat, 2022).
There is no doubt that large corporations, particularly fossil-fuel burning companies as well as inefficient governmental interventions are responsible for the lion’s share of carbon emissions that are heating and destroying the planet. It is therefore difficult to see the role that individual actions can play in the current climate crisis.
However, we all have a part to play when it comes to food. Compared to other global issues, this is a tangible one; one that we all touch and interact with every single day. This article demonstrates that you alone can make a real positive difference today just by limiting the food that goes to waste in your own home.In doing so you will, in no small part, contribute to the goal of eradicating world hunger, reversing climate change and lessening the strain on our fragile natural ecosystems, both aquatic and terrestrial. Best yet, you can save up to 60 pounds a month. So, what are you waiting for?
United Nations. (2022). Sustainable Development Goals . Retrieved from Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations : https://www.fao.org/sustainable-development-goals/indicators/1231/en/
UN Environmental Programme. (2022). Worldwide food waste . Retrieved from Think-Eat-Save Reduce Your Footprint: https://www.unep.org/thinkeatsave/get-informed/worldwide-food-waste#:~:text=Roughly%20one%2Dthird%20of%20the,tonnes%20%2D%20gets%20lost%20or%20wasted.
Whiting, K. (2022, March 14). Feeding the world: What are the challenges and how can we achieve global food security? . Retrieved from World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/03/global-food-security-challenges-solutions/
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Finn, S. (2021, May 3). How to accelerate global food waste reduction: 7 key takeaways . Retrieved from Leanpath: https://blog.leanpath.com/how-to-accelerate-global-food-waste-reduction-7-key-takeaways
WRAP. (2020, September). The Food Waste Reduction Roadmap Progress Report. Retrieved from https://laca.co.uk/sites/default/files/attachment/news/WRAP%202020.pdf
Berkowitz. (2016). Reduced-portion entrées in a worksite and restaurant setting: impact on food consumption and waste. Public Health Nutrition, 19(16), 3048-3054.
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Hubbub and JustEat. (2022). The Food Waste Race. Retrieved from Hubbub: https://www.hubbub.org.uk/the-food-waste-race
Hubbub. (2022). The Food Waste Race . Retrieved from Hubbub: https://www.hubbub.org.uk/the-food-waste-race
WRAP. (2019). Retail Study 2019. Retrieved from https://wrap.org.uk/resources/report/retail-survey-2019
WRAP. (2018). Let's keep crushing it ok, UK? Retrieved from Love Food Hate Waste : https://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com/keepcrushingit