Time to halt our massive waste of food – here’s how

Time to halt our massive waste of food – here's how
Time to halt our massive waste of food – here's how
Time to halt our massive waste of food – here's how
Time to halt our massive waste of food – here’s how

As much as half of our food goes to waste even as nearly a billion people remain underfed in poorer countries. What measures and technologies could help us get on top of the problem?

How much perfectly edible food do you chuck away? If about half ends up in the bin, it would echo the results of a study published today. It estimates that of the 4 billion metric tons of food we produce each year, between 1.2 and 2 billion tons never gets eaten.

That’s not an edifying statistic, given that according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 870 million people remain underfed in poorer countries. What are the resource implications of this waste, and what measures and technologies could we adopt, now or in the near future, to get on top of the problem?

The reasons food is wasted differ between rich, poor and intermediate countries, but waste is most profligate and avoidable in rich countries, says the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London, in a report entitled Global Food: Waste not, want not.

Typically, around half of food in richer countries is binned. In the US, big contributors to waste include supersized portions that customers simply can’t manage, and “eat as much as you want” offers in restaurants. In the UK, over-conservative sell-by dates on labels and two-for-one offers of perishable items are key factors, encouraging consumers to buy too much food to start with and to throw away items that have reached their sell-by date, but which are still edible.

The problem, says the report, is that the sell-by dates are selected not to protect us from rotten food, but to give supermarkets huge safety margins – minimising any risk of consumers eating their products, getting ill and then suing them.

No ugly veg please

Another factor in rich countries is that consumers may shun oddly shaped vegetables. This, says the survey, leads to as much as 30 per cent of vegetable harvests being rejected by supermarkets – again, a huge and unnecessary waste.

In developing countries, poor transport and storage systems lead to much food being lost before it even gets to the shop: for example, 45 per cent of rice is lost in this way in China, and as much as 80 per cent in Vietnam. In the poorest countries, much food is also lost through poor handling by farmers.

All this is bad enough, but it gets even worse when the resources used to produce wasted food are taken into account. Huge amounts of water go to waste with every morsel thrown in the bin. The report says that about 70 per cent of our fresh water globally goes into produc