When you hear the word "environment" what comes to mind? Plastic clogging up the oceans? Smog from absurd amounts of traffic? Oil spills? Land fills? Greenhouse gases? That sort of thing, right? What about food waste and food loss?
It may not be as heart-wrenching as videos of whales with mouths full of plastic, or as emotionally devastating as pictures of landscapes ruined by deforestation and other resource extraction practices, but the amount of food that is lost and wasted is a problem. A big one. A study done by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that approximately one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally. One-third amounts to around 1.3 billion tons per year.
It's lost or wasted throughout the production- and supply-chain as a result of excess production, as a result of spoilage due to improper storage, as a result of incomplete household consumption, and as a result of unmet aesthetic standards--chucked in households bins because it's past the sell-by date or scrapped from store shelves for being too odd a shape, for example.
Such waste and loss are costly. Economically, we lose the money and man-hours used to produce, store, distribute and dispose of it. Ecologically, the land, water, fertilizer and greenhouses gases that are consumed or created during food production result in a substantial environmental footprint.
But what can we do about it?
First, it's necessary to know the difference between food loss and food waste.
- Food that is spilled or spoiled before it reaches its final product or retail stage is classified as food loss. It can occur because of problems harvesting, storing, packing, or transporting it. Food loss can also be a consequence of infrastructure failure, market and price fluctuations, as well as a result of institutional and legal processes. Harvested bananas that fall off a truck in transit, for instance, are considered food loss. Some food loss is unavoidable due to harsh weather, disease, and other factors outside of our control.
- Food that is fit for human consumption but isn't actually consumed is called food waste. Food waste can accumulate because of rigid or misunderstood date marking rules and because of improper storage, buying and cooking practices on the part of the consumer and retailer. A carton of brown-spotted bananas thrown away by a shop, for instance, is considered food waste.
Unless you're a farmer, a producer, a distributor, or a retailer, there's not too much you can do about food loss. But what about food waste? How much can we, as average consumers, do?
According to the FAO, per capita food waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America, while consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-eastern Asia, each throw away only 6-11 kg a year. Another statistic: in developing countries 40% of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels while in industrialized countries more than 40% of losses happen at retail and consumer levels.
The difference is due in part to cultural reasons and in part due to local, regional and national infrastructure. Culturally, in the West, we are much more stringent with our tastes and preferences. For example, consumers prefer specific cuts of meat and many don't want to eat liver or kidney or tongue. We often toss the stems and leaves of some vegetables.
If you are lucky enough to live in a developed country, you probably realize how easy it is to get food and dispose of it. There are public services and government authorities whose sole responsibility is the proper manufacturing, transport, storage and disposal of food. And as consumers, we can take some simple and inexpensive steps to reduce food waste, and in the process reduce our environmental footprint and ease the burden on local, national and global infrastructure.
There's a growing community of people who recognize the need for a cultural shift in our approach to food. And more often than not the methods they advise begin with the adoption of habits that limit food waste. Here's a few to keep in mind before you do the next grocery shop.
- Plan your meals.
Creating a weekly menu helps to avoid unnecessary food purchasing. Besides saving on wasted food, meal planning saves time, stress, money, and typically means healthier eating.
- Check what you already have.
Your refrigerator and cupboards are the starting point for planning the next week’s meals. What needs using up? What’s a good meal to make with the other half of that broccoli, and the leftover pasta from two days ago? Sounds like a baked pasta dish might do the trick, so you’ll need to buy some canned tomatoes to make that work.
- Create a shopping list from your meal plan.
It seems simple, but purchasing what you've planned to eat results in a big drop in food waste.
What about when you're shopping? Keep these tips in mind:
- Special offers might be tempting but before purchasing them ensure that you will consume all of the food included in the offer.
- When available, buy food from bulk bins that allow you to choose your own quantities. This makes it less likely for you to over-purchase.
- Check out the product’s labels. The “use-by” date and the “best-before” date aren't always the same. Don't buy something that must be used by tomorrow if you're not planning to incorporate it into a meal until the weekend.
Purchasing represents a few opportunities to decrease your total food waste. Storage is another area where good practices can result in less waste. So:
- Have kitchen essentials on hand.
Two to three grains, pasta, oats, oils, dried beans (or canned), canned tomatoes, vinegar, onions, garlic, some key spices, salt; these are some of the items I have in my pantry most of the time. They have a long shelf life when stored in the appropriate conditions and they can form the basis of countless meals.
- Keep some frozen vegetables and fruits on hand.
Research shows that frozen fruits and vegetables have relatively equivalent nutrient profiles compared to fresh produce. In fact, because they are often picked at their peak freshness and frozen within hours of harvesting, they may in some cases have more nutrients than raw produce that travels for days and degrades in refrigerators.
- Set your refrigerator to the right temperature.
Temperature is the key to slowing down the activity of bacteria and enzymes. The colder the temperature, the less active they’ll be. (Using the freezer stops them in their tracks.) The target number for your refrigerator is 4°C/ 40°F. If the refrigerator is too cold, delicate food like salads can freeze, and it will also use more electricity. If the temperature is too warm, the food can spoil more quickly or pose a health risk.
Arrange the contents of your refrigerator and kitchen pantry so that you know where it is and can see it easily. Keep fresh produce together. Keep grains together. Keep opened jars and half-used packages together. That way you won’t open a new jar of jam when there is one already lurking in the back, or purchase more broccoli when you have some florets hiding on the bottom shelf.
- Start with smaller portions.
Listen to your stomach and eat only until you're full. Not only will you find it easier to lose or maintain weight, you'll also need to purchase less food, and you'll end up with some tasty leftovers to have as a snack.
Wasting less food is about keeping ingredients fresh. It’s about meals and menus that use up different parts of the animals and vegetables we have to hand. It’s about getting creative with what we have and getting to know our food--how it ages and how it is best stored. It's about matching what we buy with what we eat. It's about making subtle changes to how we eat, how we shop, how we store, and how we cook. But it's also about consumer power.
Sure, striving to reduce food waste will impact us personally. We'll waste less and spend less as a result. But it also alters the greater patterns of production. As consumers, we can choose what to spend our money, time and energy on, and in turn we can alter what is produced and retailed to us. For example, we can make an effort to purchase "misshapen" fruits and vegetables. If enough of us do that we'll see the reappearance of "odd" fruits in our stores and producers and retailers will waste less food because of purely aesthetic criteria. Or we can distribute more of our income to local producers by shopping at independent stores. If enough of us do that, our food will be produced closer to home, be fresher, and be less likely to spoil because of excessive transport and storage times.
For there to be collective change we have to make different individual choices. This applies to energy use, to recycling, to education, and to food waste and food loss as well.