The Under-Recognised Public Health Problem of Food Waste

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Last week, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers published a chilling report on the problem of global food waste. They estimated that 30-50% of all food produced on the planet is lost or wasted before it can be consumed. That is between 1.2 and 2 billion metric tonnes of food. This damning figure has implications for every single person living on this earth both today and in the future.

First off, the reasons for food loss and waste vary by global region. Helpfully, the authors of the report divided the globe into three broad groups based on stage of economic development where this variation occurs. In countries at early stages of development and industrialisation, such as several countries in Africa, food loss occurs at the earliest point in the supply chain: at the level of the farmer and producer (1). The report cites inefficient harvesting, inadequate transportation, and poor infrastructure as the main reasons for food loss in these regions (1). The second group is countries in late stages of development and industrialisation, such as China, and the third is fully developed and post-industrial societies, such as those in Europe and North America (1). Not surprisingly, food waste occurs closer to the level of the consumer in more developed societies, with most wastage occurring at supermarkets and in people’s homes (1). For example, consumer demand for fresh, physically attractive fruits and vegetables means that supermarkets will not purchase produce that does not meet marketing standards (1).

There are several consequences of food loss and waste. The amount of water, land space, and energy used in producing never-consumed food is staggering. As our global population grows over the next few centuries, this ancillary wastage will become an even direr problem for environmental sustainability. The IME report states that almost 4 trillion cubic metres of water are currently used by the global population per annum with about 70% of that used for food production (1). According to population growth forecasts, the amount of water estimated to be required for food production alone by 2050 is 10-13 trillion cubic metres, a 2.5-3.5 fold increase (1). Second, the report states that about half of the usable land surface area on our planet is currently used for agriculture (1). Expansion of agricultural land use is of course not ideal, as we need the unused land to support the earth’s ecosystems. However, population growth and increasing demands for meat-based diets (raising animals requires considerably more land space than growing produce (2)) mean that more land is likely to be used for food production, at cost to the environment. Finally, the fertiliser, pesticides, machinery, and transportation required for food production use energy, often in the form of fossil fuels (1). Food wastage contributes to global warming and again, as our population grows, this is likely to only increase in future.

Because food loss and waste is inextricably linked to the health of our environment and societal attitudes toward food production and consumption, it is also fundamentally tied to human health.  Major issues of under-nutrition in many developing countries and over-nutrition in developed countries are given a deep and interesting context when considered in light of the mostly infrastructure-based reasons for food loss in the former group and the consumer-based reasons for waste in the latter. In sub-Saharan Africa, food loss due to inadequate infrastructure during the production to retailing process is estimated at just over 150 kg/year per capita (3). Many countries in this region are among those with the greatest proportions of children under age 5 who are moderately or severely underweight. Clearly, improved and efficient food production technology and infrastructure is sorely needed to improve the health of populations in these countries. By contrast, the branding of food as a consumer product in developed countries such as those in North America displays societal attitudes to food in these countries as disposable, plentiful, and of low value. The correlation between these attitudes and population obesity rates in rich countries can be no accident. Rather damning for rich, privileged countries, this comparison between regions in differing stages of economic development shines a hard light on the gross inequities in food systems across the globe.

Despite this global inequity, food loss and waste are absent from mention in the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals (4). True, food loss and waste are issues related to the objectives of environmental sustainability, poverty, and global hunger, which are included in the goals. But, the magnitude of the global food waste problem and its potential to escalate in coming generations as the world’s population cannot be ignored. If societal attitudes toward food in rich developed nations were to change to place greater value on food and the nutrition it brings, then perhaps consumer wastage would reduce and diets would shift away from a reliance on packaged and processed foods. In doing so, rates of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease would likely decrease in developed countries. In line with the Millennium Development Goals, less food loss and improved food production systems in many developing countries would reduce problems of malnutrition in these places.

Reassuringly, action does seem near in the future. The Institution for Mechanical Engineers made three recommendations in their report: first, that the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation work with the international engineering community to improve technology and programmes for food production; second, that governments developing countries incorporate waste minimisation in future food transport infrastructure and storage facilities; and third, that governments in developed nations create and implement policy to change consumer culture surrounding food (1). A report on food security from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change from March 2012 contains a similar recommendation regarding food loss and waste (5). Most importantly, governments are beginning to take note: the European Parliament has pledged to reduce household food disposal by 50% by 2020 (6). Whether or not these recommendations and policy will be followed is the next question. In the meantime, we all could use a little bit of awareness and change of practice as individuals to help correct this global problem.

References

1) Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not. Westminster, London; 2013.

2) Pimentel D, Pimentel M. Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. Am J Clin Nutr 2003;78(3 Suppl):660S-663S.

3) Gustavsson J, Cederberg C, Sonesson U, van Otterdijk R, Meybeck A. Global food losses and food waste: extent, causes and prevention. Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, Rome; 2011.

4) United Nations. The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012. New York; 2012.

5) Beddington J, Asaduzzaman M, Clark M, Fernández A, Guillou M, Jahn M, Erda L, Mamo T, Van Bo N, Nobre CA, Scholes R, Sharma R, Wakhungu J. 2012. Achieving food security in the face of climate change: Final report from the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Copenhagen, Denmark. Available online at: www.ccafs.cgiar.org/commission.

6) European Commission. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions: Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe. Brussels; 2011.

 

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