The World Food Programme’s Chief, David Beasley, in April 2020 ominously warned world leaders about impending famine across the world on par with the current Coronavirus pandemic. Due to locust infestations around the horn of Africa, the Sahel, and unstable weather conditions in different parts of the world such as in South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, many people were bound to starve in 2020. While the clock calmly ticks away towards the future, it carries with it the double-edged catastrophes of a global health crisis due to COVID-19 and a horrendous global humanitarian crisis as a direct result of menacing elevations of hunger and lack of access to food or the financial and structural resources to access nutrition.

It may seem perplexing that in spite of the fact that enough food is produced today to support the current global population, over 820 million people remain hungry and are not able to access food. This is even more worrisome when you consider the devil in details- this estimate has been growing by about 10 million people annually or by 60 million every half-decade.  It has been suggested by experts in forecasting, that the COVID-19 pandemic could add as much as 83 and 132 million people to the total number of undernourished persons in the world in 2020.  

Currently, world food production is estimated to be at 7.19 billion metric tons which implies that we produce enough food for everyone to have at least 2,212.6 pounds (1003.6 Kilograms) per year which is largely sufficient to meet individual nutritional needs. However, while this utopian facade we live in today in comparison to life before the industrial revolution might seem like a perfect description of a country with no worries which brings to mind words like “immense prosperity and sufficiency”, about 30% of the food produced is wasted and does not get to the stomachs of the humans for whom they were produced. The bottom line is that about 1.6 billion metric tons of food is lost and wasted annually.

But what is food waste?

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, food waste

  •    “Food waste refers to food appropriate for human consumption being discarded, whether or not after it is kept beyond its expiry date or left to spoil. Often this is because food has spoiled but it can be for other reasons such as oversupply due to markets, or individual consumer shopping/eating habits.” -FAO

So why does food get wasted in a world that can’t feed its hungry? With all the tools at our disposal in the 21st century, you would not be wrong to assume that nobody should go to bed hungry since we have the means to efficiently produce and distribute food. One of the most perplexing reasons why food is wasted, especially in the case of vegetables is because of the aesthetic tastes of consumers in leading economies of the world-that zucchini must look handsome or that tomato must be really round. These minor but significant aesthetic demands by the consumerist population have driven farmers and producers to make sure that everything meets the high tastes of the consumers. Anything short of the standard is discarded or left to rot on the farms. Supermarket chains selectively purchase good looking agricultural products before they package them for their shelves. Food is also wasted due to bad weather, processing problems, overproduction, loss in transportation or refrigeration, and unstable markets long before it arrives in a grocery store. Other factors include overbuying (again consumerist behavior), misperception over labels and safety, and poor planning contribute to food waste at stores and in homes. When considered from a household/individual to macro levels, the direct economic consequences of food wastage (not counting fish and seafood) amount to the tune of $750 billion lost annually according to the FAO.

The consequences of food waste also come at an environmental cost to the planet. First, because most of the food wasted is not even composted, this results in a huge amount of solid waste on the planet where they biodegrade and release methane and other greenhouse gases which contribute significantly to global warming. But this is not the end of the story. When you take into account the energy that is used to produce food that is retailed to consumers, out of which a large percentage gets wasted, this contributes a large quota to the national and global energy waste. And we thought we were the generation that was going to save the planet?

What can be done about food waste? The silver lining in the cloud is that we can all act to eliminate food waste. Although global public awareness of this menace has improved in recent times, the challenge we face is one of converting awareness into action at all levels of society from the top down. This means that if we all individually make better choices as in our consuming habits and let the scales of perfect aesthetics fall from our eyes, buy only what we can consume within a given time period, and try to store food more efficiently while avoiding the tendency to hoard, this might snowball into a great movement across the world (this has already started) to end this menace.

Legislators can also pass policies to fast-track and influence our collective consumerist behaviors (some economists might disagree). In France for example, a law was passed in 2016 that prohibited supermarket chains from discarding food. They were rather encouraged to donate to charity. Many countries in the world can take this first step as an example and build upon it until we have a world where every pound of food produced is given a “duty” and no human goes to bed hungry.

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