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What a waste: Good food becomes waste before it is eaten

published 12 January 2013 | modified 18 December 2016

In its report ‘Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not’ the Institution of Mechanical Engineers shows what evolution of Homo sapiens has achieved so far. Since we settled down in hamlets and had the patience to grow crops, thousands of years ago, the human race has evolved into a species that manages to let good food become waste.

Recently the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK reported that as much as 50% of all food produced around the world never reaches a human stomach due to issues as varied as inadequate infrastructure and storage facilities through to overly strict sell-by dates, buy-one-get-one free offers and consumers demanding cosmetically perfect food.
(from the report ‘Global Food; Waste Not,Want Not’)

In fact, this way we are wasting valuable arable land. For instance land that is reclaimed from the Amazon ecosystems and is cultivated by 'slash and burn' activities to produce feed for the mass meat production elsewhere. Meat, or animal proteins it is sometimes called, that is desperately needed in countries with a population that is increasing in size and affluence.

The amount of food wasted and lost around the world is staggering. This is food that could be used to feed the world’s growing population – as well as those in hunger today. It is also an unnecessary waste of the land, water and energy resources that were used in the production, processing and distribution of this food
Dr Tim Fox, Head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers >>

When the global human population increased and demanded more and more food, our evolved brains were very useful. Dedicated inventions and innovations led to great solutions, such as increased yields by improved crops, better (automated) harvesting techniques, and fertilisers. So, after the industrial and green revolution we had enormously increased our food production, but also created large urban areas. Unfortunately, it turns out that we forgot about the logistics and human greed and expectations.

The ongoing urbanisation led to huge cities without arable land to produce sufficient food to feed the citizens. So, local produce don't really mean it has been produced locally anymore, it has been transported over considerable distances.

I am not really sure if greed is a trait that came with human evolution, but at least it is a side effect and many modern western people show signs of this 'only the best is good for us' and 'more is better' attitude. And for some strange reason we want everything cheap, including or perhaps especially our food, even if we have more money to spend. Unfortunately, this led to very intensive animal farming with in general impaired animal welfare.

foodwaste.infographicIn addition rich western consumers demand to have access to all exotic varieties of fresh food since we tasted all those exotic fruits in faraway places. Places we could travel to by another invention, the aeroplane, which made every single one of us a globe-trotter and consider himself a real 'Livingstone'. But many of these exotic foods can only be produced in exotic places, which leads to another transport and logistics issue. Or we start producing them in a region that is climatically not fit-for-purpose, which requires greenhouses and a lot of fossil fuels to create the right conditions to grow these foods.

Then there is this thing beyond imagination which is called the rejection of food on the basis of cosmetic characteristics. This means that we throw away food already at production facilities, just because it does not have the correct physical appearance, such as the wrong curve of a banana, apples being the wrong shape, too big or too small, or a bent cucumber. In Brussels – EU headquarters - they even have devised standards to ensure that farm produce looks the same across the whole European Union, e.g. apples, nutritional value is not taking into account.

Unfortunately, our great minds were not that evolved that they foresaw what the effect would be of the great inventions and developments. Now we see that sometimes logistics fail, and that we became too much dependent on transport (fossil fuels). As a result sometimes the foods available in the supermarket are not that fresh anymore and have a shorter shelf life. On the other hand food is offered sometimes that cheap or via 'buy one-get-one free' offers that it can easily lead to a consumer's refrigerator that is overstocked. Final result: good food becomes waste.

So, with the predictions of the United Nations that there could be about an extra three billion people to feed by the end of the century and an increasing pressure on the resources needed to produce food, including land, water and energy, the Institution is calling for urgent action to tackle this waste.

The report ‘Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not’ found that:

between 30% and 50% or 1.2-2 billion tonnes of food produced around the world each year never reaches a human stomach;

as much as 30% of UK vegetable crops are not harvested due to them failing to meet exacting standards based on their physical appearance, while up to half of the food that’s bought in Europe and the USA is thrown away by the consumer;

about 550 billion m3 of water is wasted globally in growing crops that never reach the consumer;

it takes 20-50 times the amount of water to produce 1 kilogram of meat than 1 kilogram of vegetables;

the demand for water in food production could reach 10–13 trillion m3 a year by 2050. This is 2.5 to 3.5 times greater than the total human use of fresh water today and could lead to more dangerous water shortages around the world;

there is the potential to provide 60-100% more food by eliminating losses and waste while at the same time freeing up land, energy and water resources.

When you look at these findings there is certainly a need for urgent action. Hopefully, it will not be too late, considering what Tim Fox, one of the authors of the report said:

“As water, land and energy resources come under increasing pressure from competing human demands, engineers have a crucial role to play in preventing food loss and waste by developing more efficient ways of growing, transporting and storing foods. But in order for this to happen Governments, development agencies and organisation like the UN must work together to help change people’s mindsets on waste and discourage wasteful practices by farmers, food producers, supermarkets and consumers.”

According the report, by improving processes and infrastructure as well as changing consumer mindsets, we would have the ability to provide 60-100% more food to feed the world’s growing population. But we will have to do it NOW, otherwise we evolved into extinction.

* Tristram Stuart illustrates it all with his informative and inspiring TED Talk 'The global food waste scandal':
Western countries throw out nearly half of their food, not because it’s inedible -- but because it doesn’t look appealing. Tristram Stuart delves into the shocking data of wasted food, calling for a more responsible use of global resources. He sounds the warning bell on global food waste, calling for us to change the systems whereby large quantities of produce and other foods end up in trash heaps. His book titled 'Waste - uncovering the global food scandal' is absolutely worth reading.

* And UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) has recently launched this video to support their Food Waste campaign, with the message 'A third of the world's food is lost and wasted. Let's start to Think.Eat.Save.':

(Source: Institution of Mechanical Engineers media release, 10.01.2013; TED Talk by Tristram Stuart, September 2012; UNEP YouTube channel, 13.06.2013)


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