Food and Effort Gone to Waste

Food and Effort Gone to Waste

I remember the last time I threw away some food. It was the remains of my fruity-muesli breakfast I had one morning. It contained oats, seeds and some dried strawberries. I had had more than enough and some leftovers ended up in my rubbish bin. It left me wondering about these food items’ journey, from the day they were produced to the day they ended up as waste.

Creator: Joseph Kai. All rights reserved.

I remember the last time I threw away some food. It was the remains of my fruity-muesli breakfast I had one morning. It contained oats, seeds and some dried strawberries. I had had more than enough and some leftovers ended up in my rubbish bin. It left me wondering about these food items’ journey, from the day they were produced to the day they ended up as waste.

 

Those little strawberry pieces left in my muesli bowl had begun their journey about a year ago in California, where their hybrid ‘mother plant’ was produced. This Californian ‘mother plant’ had been exported thousands of kilometers across the Atlantic Ocean to a Spanish nursery. There, it was cultivated and divided into thousands of plants ready to be exported again and planted in strawberry farms in countries like Morocco, Turkey, and Egypt, where the magic happens.

 

And that’s when the magic finally happened! In a long white plastic tunnel, my beautiful little red strawberries later ripened, thanks to the interventions of dozens of farm workers and agro-engineers. Quickly picked and frozen in a nearby industrial facility, the strawberries were then sent to China by boat in refrigerated containers. China is a country where energy is cheap and using an energy-intensive industrial process, tons of frozen red berries were quickly transformed into freeze-dried little fruits.

 

Setting sail once again my strawberries travelled towards the USA or Europe to be mixed with muesli and packaged under the name of a famous international brand. Then, thanks to the retailers, this fruity-muesli pack was brought to a shop close to my house. That’s when I bought it, enjoyed it and threw away part of it before rushing to work.

 

That day I thought I had only thrown away a few grams of food, wherein fact I had wasted the end result of an extended international value chain employing human, natural and energetic resources, eco-systemic services and industrial activities. I realized that in the modern food system each bite of a snack, each spoon from a muesli bowl, or even each ingredient in the most traditional tagine is much more than just simply ‘food.’

 

At a global level, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that about one third of the food produced for human consumption ends-up either lost or wasted (that’s 1.7 billion tons of food per year).[1] In effect, this means that an area of agricultural land bigger than the whole of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)[2] region is dedicated every year to producing food that will never be eaten (that’s 1.4 billion hectares of land).[3]

 

Food loss and waste happen all along the food value chain, taking into account not only food wasted by the final consumers, but also all the food potentially lost upstream from field to market. [4]

 

Food loss and waste in the MENA region

Although the FAO points to the fact that we lack precise data about MENA countries, all its reports suggest that the region also wastes about one third of its available food, 250kg per capita each year.

 

On closer investigation of the food value chain in the MENA region, the FAO believes that most of the food loss and waste occurs in the upstream stages of the value chain during harvesting, handling, transportation, processing and distribution.[5] In part, this may be due to a lack of resources among small farmers unable to implement efficient harvesting techniques, but also to bad transport and storage facilities and exposure to hot climatic conditions. As a result, food wastage before products even reaches the consumers.

 

At the consumption stage, urban households’ behaviour also plays an important role since they waste 32% to 34% of the food they consume. [6] Wasting food is almost a ‘normal’ by-product of our lifestyle, but in a region where more than 50% of food is imported and where agriculture constantly struggles against water scarcity and other impacts of climate change, to waste food makes no sense.

 

What food waste represents in our region

Food loss and waste is a phenomenon that has social, environmental and economic effects. We can’t provide a comprehensive list of each of these as that would require a complete life-cycle analysis but here are some interesting statistics. What we have tried to do here is to translate these figures into more tangible and easy-to-understand facts. This approach might not be an exact science but it may help to visualise the problem at hand.

 

A waste of human energy and labour:

45% of fruits and vegetables are lost or wasted (the highest of all food categories).

 

In a week, a farm worker producing fruit and vegetables dedicates 3-days’ work to producing waste.

 

 

 

In Morocco, households spend 34.5% of the family budget on food, of which one third is wasted. [7]

 

 

Each month, 3 days’ salary is dedicated to food waste.

In other words, more than 10% of a household’s budget is invested in food waste.

 

A waste of natural resources and unnecessary environmental consequences:

42km3 of water is used every year to produce the food that is wasted annually.

 

Annually, water losses in MENA equate to the average volume of water carried by the Nile river over a 5-month period.

 

 

 

360 million hectares of land are used to produce the food that is wasted annually.

 

An area of land as big as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq is dedicated to producing food waste.

 

 

 

Over its entire life cycle, lost and wasted food in MENA, produces 200 million tons CO2 eq.

 

Food waste’s climate footprint is equivalent to Algeria and Lebanon’s cumulative annual carbon footprint.[8]

 

A problem of food security:

Households waste about one third of their food at home.

 

A family of 6 people could feed 2 more people with the food they waste.

 

 

 

Up to 20% of MENA’s cereals are wasted.

 

The region depends on importations: 36 million tons of wheat are imported each year, whereas 16 million tons are wasted.

 

 

 

In the MENA population, 33 million people are undernourished.

 

A population as big as Morocco’s is food insecure.

     

 

 

A need for more rational practices

Returning to the roots of the problem, one can easily understand that food loss and waste is tightly linked to two elements: the complexity of our modern food system, and our patterns of consumption.

 

As most national and regional policies on food waste reduction in MENA mainly focus on the early stages of the value chain, I would like to pay some attention to consumption. Being an urban citizen, just like the majority of MENA’s population, I grew up disconnected from food production. In cities, food comes from the market, not from the land; and the only limiting factor in accessing food is money, not crop seasonality, climate conditions or the availability of water and healthy soils.

Modern food systems blur people’s perception of the most basic elements determining our existence: we don’t really know how food is produced and where it comes from. We don’t know how much food is discarded before fruit, vegetables and fish arrive in the market, and it seems normal that everything we buy generates inorganic waste (food packaging, plastic bags, etc.). As a consequence, wasting food at home has become the norm, as well as expecting to have only perfect-shaped vegetables, or eating dairy products without even knowing that the milk they contain was produced in New-Zealand.

 

It is my contention that although most food waste occurs on the way from the field to the market, the most powerful way to tackle food waste and get quick, positive results is to focus first on changing consumer behaviour.

 

First and foremost, I believe policy makers and civil society organizations should use media campaigns to promote simple positive habits. One example, I feel is important, is to promote simple traditional food conservation techniques that are being forgotten. These campaigns should also foster changes in mindset, especially in regards to the over-consumption of food during traditional holydays and ceremonies, therefore encouraging people to buy only what they need and finishing what’s on their plate.

 

Reconnecting urban population, particularly young people, with food production is also a priority. This can be done through the introduction of small-scale food gardens in schools, and by fostering the development of urban agriculture, thereby beginning to relocate food production and reducing the supply chain length for fruit and vegetables.

 

If implemented with the necessary political will for change, I think these simple measures could possibly produce a bottom-up reaction. Having more responsible consumers could very quickly create a positive systemic change beyond food waste reduction, namely, reducing the pressure on natural resources, fostering local food value chains, re-evaluating traditional products and small farmers’ work and cutting down on unnecessary food importations. 

 

[1] FAO, 2014, Mitigation of food wastage: Social costs and benefits.

[2] FAO regional nomenclature refers to MENA region as ‘Near East and Northern Arica (NENA)’.

[3] FAO, 2013, Food wastage footprint: Impacts on natural resources.

[4] ‘Food loss and food waste refer to the decrease of food in subsequent stages of the food supply chain intended for human consumption. Food is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain, from initial production to final household consumption.’ FAO, see: http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/

[5] FAO, 2015. Regional Strategic Framework Reducing Food Losses and Waste in the Near East & North Africa Region, Cairo, and: http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/214452/icode/

[6] Idem.

[7] Data from Moroccan Haut Commissariat au Plan, National survey on household consumption and expenses, 2012.

[8] Data for 2012, from World Resources Institute (Algeria = 175.8 MtCO2e.; Lebanon = 26.9 MtCO2e.): http://ow.ly/sFAg30cSaHy

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