by Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) Nearly half the world’s food production never makes a plate. That’s two billion tons of food wasted, every year. Perversely, nearly one billion of the world’s population are malnourished. Put these two facts together and there’s clearly a distribution problem at the crux of the global food crisis.
[pullquote]In a nutshell, all the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe.[/pullquote]
The facts are astonishing: the UK, US and Europe have almost twice as much food as is required by the nutritional needs of their populations – up to half the entire food supply is wasted between the farm and the fork. And if crops wastefully fed to livestock are included, European countries have over three times more food than they need, while the US has around four times more food than is needed. In a nutshell, all the world’s nearly one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe.
So how and why does this happen? Unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, buy-one-get-one free offers and consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food are three big reasons why. What’s more, these are factors that – unlike agricultural or infrastructural issues – we as customers can actually do something about.
Firstly, don’t take use-by dates at face value. Supermarkets obviously err on the side of caution, as they can’t afford for their customers to get sick. In his book, Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, Tristram Stuart tells us how these dates are calculated to accommodate people who leave their shopping in hot cars for lengths of time and store it in poorly working fridges. Most food can be safely eaten well after these dates and a far more reliable way to know if something has gone bad or not is to follow your nose.
[pullquote]Don’t be put off by ‘ugly’ looking fresh produce. In the UK, up to 40% of fruit and vegetables are rejected before they even reach the shops, mostly because they do not match the supermarkets’ excessively strict cosmetic standards.[/pullquote]
Secondly, don’t be put off by ‘ugly’ looking fresh produce. In the UK, up to 40% of fruit and vegetables are rejected before they even reach the shops, mostly because they do not match the supermarkets’ excessively strict cosmetic standards. Once again, follow your nose – your sense of smell is the closest you can get to taste test produce before you buy. Tomatoes should smell like tomatoes, whereas those that look visually perfect are often quite flavourless.
The “Think.Eat.Save Reduce your Foodprint” campaign suggests further simple actions for both customers and food retailers to help reduce waste. From meal plans and shopping lists to freezing leftovers and fresh produce before it goes bad. In addition “Love Food Hate Waste” (@LFHW_UK) is a WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) initiative that also aims to raise awareness of the need to reduce food waste and help us take action by sharing some easy, practical, everyday things we can do at home, including recipes and storage tips. Not only will these daily actions reduce your foodprint, but also your food bill.
As customers we can each do our bit, but to affect behaviour-change across society, business also needs to pitch in. Supermarket giant, Tesco recently did just that by setting out a series of targets, pledging to use its scale and clout to reduce the amount of food wasted by both customers and its international supply chain. Chief executive Philip Clarke said: “It may sound counter intuitive for Tesco to help our customers reduce the amount of food they waste, because it is likely to involve reducing the volume of food they buy. And I understand some people might be sceptical hearing it from a supermarket CEO, but the issue we are trying to solve is a long-term risk.” WRAP welcomed Tesco’s pledge: “Supermarkets and big brands are uniquely placed to help reduce food waste across the whole food cycle from manufacturing and sales, through to assisting consumers to make the most of the food they’ve bought.”
In South Africa, up to 10 million tons of food is being wasted annually, though a key difference here is that “a large proportion of wastage happens in the handling and storage phases, where vulnerable food sources like fruit and vegetables are damaged”, says waste researcher Dr Suzan Oelofse. This “aesthetically displeasing food with spots or marks is then often thrown out, which in a country facing food insecurity is unacceptable”.
Despite the differences in how it happens, the problem persists. And in a country where so many people are food-poor, we should arguably be even more aware of our foodprint. Rather blemished food than no food at all.
Y&R strategy director Colwyn Elder (@colwynelder) has 17 years of experience in strategic planning, together with specific credentials in sustainability communications, social marketing, corporate social responsibility and cause-related marketing. She contributes the monthly “Green Sky Thinking” column on sustainability issues to MarkLives.