Food waste is a serious worldwide issue. It speaks of a behavioral problem that spans generations. It operates under the inequality gap of people from different walks of life. Most of all, it happens at the same time that many go hungry from lack of food.
Annually a third of total global food production gets wasted. This is equivalent to 1.3 billion tons of food, enough to feed more than 800 million people. Worse, it’s also too much a drain for our wallets. This annual food waste costs about one hundred sixty-five billion dollars. Similarly, this is too much money that could have been spent elsewhere – for social welfare, education, and other human needs. Above all, food waste costs too much for us to let it continue. Its environmental, social, and humanitarian impacts prove too much for society and the world.
Food waste takes a heavy toll upon our environment. First, forests are cut and burned down to make room for agricultural land. But the way things progress now, near thirty percent of this land goes to produce food gone to waste. Second, river-wide flows of water represent the large water print of wasted food. Third is the damage to the Earth’s atmosphere: Food waste produces 3.3 tons of greenhouse gases, enough to be on par with the world’s most carbon-positive countries.
Why is food waste so disgusting?
Food is a basic human necessity. But now, humans have also made it to be a luxury. Having good food is a universal human right. Yet most often, the capacity to sustain three nutritious meals per day is a privilege to those with money and social status. The fact that millions go hungry and die starving is a disgusting tragedy when paired with the issue of food waste.
All over the world, there are families who cannot eat three full meals a day. Food-insecure households, as they are called, suffer from poverty and unstable employment. They either dive into dumpsters, beg for scraps, or simply starve. Even those who have money to spare from their odd jobs, they can’t buy good food – only processed or fast food. Because in most places, fresh wholesome food is more expensive than greasy unhealthy stuff.
Homelessness and food banks increased in the world as standards of living increase and the wealth gap expands cruelly. Food waste is most disgusting when seen in the context of those who cannot afford to eat well. For instance, the poor of Payatas slums in the Philippines eat the infamous “pagpag”, combined food taken from the trash that they re-cook, eat and sell for a living. Even as they forage for food, they disdain the wastefulness of their middle class and richer fellow citizens. They call food from the garbage as “the rich’s excess leftovers”. Seeing these people scavenge for food will make you think twice of abusing your local all-you-can-eat buffet.
What fuels this food waste?
Over the last forty years, food has become a lot cheaper. And with people becoming more affluent, easier to throw away. What was once a treasured meal became a disposable commodity. Corporations constantly worked out ways to trigger the natural human evolutionary impulse to take and take more. Every week, we buy twenty to thirty percent more food than we need. We are enticed by commercials, deceptive advertising and many other tricks that fuel overconsumption.
Stores always keep their shelves full of merchandise. So their customers get attracted by new products and do more impulse buys. Second, instead of selling out stocks, they choose to throw away remaining food or food that’s about to expire. Stores and manufacturers are also very deceptive in how they sell because they create an urgency to buy without proper guidance about expiration limits. Confusion about expire by, use by, sell by dates create pressure upon consumers to buy as much as possible without even thinking of the waste that comes after the purchase. Worse, these stores just let their excess stock go to waste due to false fears about donating food. They think it is risky lawfully for them to donate. In fact, rather, their business model doesn’t enable them to donate due to multiple costs.
It’s not normal for veggies and fruits to look so perfect. Perfect-looking food usually means that they are grown with pesticides and other harmful chemicals to keep their aesthetic value. But not looking a certain way penalizes the produce in question. They lose two-thirds of their monetary value if they cannot meet the specific standards of a certain country. However, having brown spots or uneven skin tone doesn’t dilute the taste nor decrease the nutrients in a fruit or vegetable. And if you look deeper, after cooking, you won’t be able to tell whether a vegetable looks imperfect or not. What matters most is its edible quality.
Food waste is a societal and behavioral issue. So it should be approached in two ways: macro level and individual level.
First, on a macro level, governments should incentivize donating food. Give tax credits and other benefits so that people, businesses, and institutions will be encouraged to donate unconsumed food. Next, retailers and restaurants should donate unsold food to local charities and startup companies (particular imperfectly looking produce). Then for food not fit for human consumption, give it to animals – to pigs, dogs, etc.
As individuals, you can also practice habits to lessen or prevent food waste. It will save you many bucks in the long run. First, buy and eat only what you need. Refrain from throwing food. Treasure every piece, every particle that you have on your plate. Second, reuse leftovers. Be creative with meal planning. Last night’s dinner can become material for the next day’s breakfast. Lastly, separate food waste from others and put it straight to composting.