Gone to Waste In the dead of night, a man foraged through Singapore’s trash. His name is Daniel Tay. He identifies himself as a “freegan”, a person who seeks to reduce waste and refuses to be a participant of consumerism. A financial advisor by day and a dumpster-diver by night, Mr Tay is one of the leaders Singapore’s dumpster-diving community. He frequently organises “veggie hunts” with other freegans to supermarket outlets, during which exorbitant amounts of discarded but still edible food are collected.
In fact, the community that Mr Tay is a devoted member of is a global one, and one that has brought to attention an ugly side of the world’s food industry: food wastage. It is estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) that every year, a third of the world’s food produce is lost or wasted along the food production chain, most of which occur in developed nations. In such countries, food wastage and lost occur mostly at the retail and consumption stages in the food supply chain.
At the retail level, the obsession with “good-looking” food products is one of the major causes of food wastage. The strict standards on the appearance of food, especially in Western supermarkets, have resulted in the massive amounts of perfectly edible food being thrown away just because of slight deformities that ruin their appearance. As Sarah Oppenheimer of Feedback Global, a campaign group that aims to transform our food system to one that is more sustainable, puts it, practices made by retailers in attempt to perfect the appearance of our food products, such as the trimming of the ends of green beans to give a sense of uniformity when they are packaged together, have led to the wastage of as much as 20 percent of the produce.
Not only so, retail outlets are also guilty of ordering excess amounts of food produce according to National Geographic. The constant urge to stock up displays to appeal to customers, combined with the worry of failing to meet customers’ demand for certain food products, often translate into the clearance of shocking amounts unsold food produce just so they may be replaced by fresh, incoming ones. In the United States alone, a study conducted by the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC)reported that retail outlets contributed to 43 billion pounds of food waste in 2008.
To make things worse, the NRDC also reported that the use of arbitrary expiration date labels often confuse customers into unintentionally throwing away food that is still safe to eat. Tags like “best before” and “sell by” labels are often misinterpreted as expiration dates, when in actuality they only indicate a food product’s peak period of freshness rather than an indication of when the food will become inedible.
That being said, however, us consumers are not entirely innocent either. We waste a huge portion of our food. This is especially so in wealthy nations, where domestic food waste accounts for as much as 40% of a developed country’s total food waste according to the FAO. Factors contributing to this are often linked to people’s general distaste of consuming leftovers given that fresh food is easily accessible.
For those of us who are privileged enough to not have to worry about our food expenses, overbuying is also a problem. Our compulsion to purchase more food when we don’t need it, be it due to the attraction to low prices during food sales or the curiosity to try different food brands, is directly causing us to not be able to finish consuming our food products before they expire. It is therefore integral for us to start paying attention to how we consume our food in order for the reduction in food waste generated to be successful.
With all of this in mind, why does this matter? With Gilbert Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) stating that as much as 40% of the total amount of food produced globally going to waste, it is ironic that many people still go hungry in the world today. Despite having more than the amount of food needed to sustain the global population, world hunger remains to be a pertinent issue that devastates millions of people. At this stage of human civilisation, food security as a basic right should have long been guaranteed for all. However, with the large disproportion in food distribution across countries of with varying wealth, coupled with the enormous scale of food wasted, hunger continues to be a major threat to social stability and the quality of life of many people. Food shortage is not the problem. Our wasteful use of it is.
Another consequence of food wastage that often goes unnoticed is its contribution to our warming climate. Currently, the FAO reports that food wastage accounts for 3.3 billion tons of global greenhouse gas emissions. From the energy spent on transporting food produce to the landfill space occupied by wasted food, the food waste is doing great damage on our environment, and this will only continue to worsen as food waste grows in tandem with the global population.
However, not all hope has been lost. Around the world, awareness campaigns are starting to gain traction. From the global Think, Eat Save. Reduce Your Foodprint initiative by the UN to the food donation initiatives by large retail company Tesco, there is tangible evidence people are starting to care more about the issue of food wastage.
All in all, it is often difficult to grasp the extent of our wastefulness when it comes to food. However, that does not mean that we should continue to turn a blind eye to it. Given the high stakes that food wastage has on our society, it is high time that we tackle this issue from all levels of our food supply chain.