2014-04-01 | News
FAO Director-General's Op-ed "What a waste!"

How often have you gone to the supermarket and searched for the best-looking apples or bananas on display? Our natural preference for pretty fruit means that tons of fruit and vegetables with only minor flaws are thrown away.

Food wasted by consumers – or by the stores and restaurants that cater to them – is only half of the story, though.

Consumer waste in lower-income countries is less of a problem, but massive amounts of food are still lost at earlier points along the food value chain.  Food losses – on farms, during processing, transport, storage, and at markets – undermine food security in many parts of Europe and Central Asia. In the developing countries, post-harvest losses can amount to as much as 40 percent of production. 

In Europe, if we combine the volume of food lost and wasted along the entire food chain, we are looking at 280 to 300 kilograms per person per year.

Taken together, food waste and losses worldwide amount to an estimated 1.3 billion metric tonnes of food.  That’s one third of the world’s annual food production.  Is that acceptable, in a world where 842 million people live with hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity?

Looking to the future, with global population expected to reach nine billion people by 2050, food requirements will continue to rise. If food losses and waste could be reduced by just half, the increase in available food needed to feed the world population by 2050 would only need to be 25 percent and not the currently estimated 60 percent.

Food losses and waste also take a staggering toll on the environment. When food is lost or thrown away, the energy, land and water resources that were used to produce it are also thrown away.  An estimated 3.3 giga-tonnes of greenhouse gases per year are emitted in producing food that is never eaten.

In economic terms, consider this:  the total annual cost of food wastage and loss, expressed in producer prices, is US$750 billion.  If we were to consider retail prices and environmental costs, the figure would be much higher.

From any perspective – ethical, economic, environmental, or in terms of human food security – we simply cannot tolerate the annual wastage of one third of all food produced.

This is why zeroing food loss and wastage is one of the five elements of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “Zero Hunger Challenge”.  We are working together within the UN system and with a broad coalition of other partners to address this and other key issues in our food systems.

In Bucharest on 3 April, Ministers of agriculture and rural development from across Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia will tackle the problem head-on. The Ministerial Roundtable on Food Losses and Waste in Europe and Central Asia will be a high point of the biannual FAO Regional Conference for Europe, hosted this year by Romania.

While consumer behaviour is important, food loss and wastage needs to be seen as a cross-cutting policy issue and not just a lifestyle choice.

The problem of food losses and waste is of such scale and complexity that all players in the food value chain need to be involved. Private-sector investment in infrastructure for transport, storage and marketing of food is badly needed, as are programs to train farmers in best practices.  The public sector can undertake research, develop methodologies, and adopt policies that encourage the private sector to invest in ways of reducing losses and waste.  

What could governments in Europe and Central Asia do to help bring about change?

In this part of the world, we see a predominance of dislocated smallholder producers.  Often these producers are unable to make investments in new technology along the food chain that would reduce spoilage and losses.  Rapid access to markets is another problem for small-scale farms.

Governments should consider introducing policies and support programmes that encourage the formation or development of producer organizations.  This type of cooperation would enable small producers to increase volumes and engage directly with processors or retailers, or to develop joint pre-cooling and storage capacity. This in turn would not only reduce extremely high levels of losses and waste due to spoilage immediately after harvest.  It would also prolong the shelf life of fresh produce, contributing to lower levels of consumer waste.

Governments could also play a catalytic role, by launching dialogues involving all the key players in certain agri-food chains (roots and tubers, fruits and vegetables, and cereals, for example), on ways of reducing food losses and waste.  This would improve coordination and networking, and create opportunities to showcase best industry practices.

Distinct from food losses, food waste is largely a result of the behaviour and choices made by consumers and retailers. Through public awareness campaigns, government has an opportunity to help change the attitude that throwing food away is cheaper or more convenient than using, re-using or preventing food waste.

I urge everyone – from government Ministers to farmers, from food retailers to family shoppers – to examine their own beliefs and practices when it comes to food. 

This waste of nutrients and resources must be stopped.

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