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Farm to fork: Leaving a smaller ‘foodprint’

HOW would you react if you sit at the dinner table and, without warning, somebody takes away one-third of your dish? One-third of your rice, one-third of your beef, one-third of your veggies, and what’s worst, one-third of your ice-cold beer.

No, this is not the latest diet advice from a lifestyle magazine, to lose a couple of pounds. Neither is it a swoop of your food-jealous neighbor’s fork.

It is daily reality. More than one-third of the food produced every day does not end up on our plates or in our stomachs—it gets lost or wasted. That sums up to 1.3 billion tons.

To grasp the dimension: this is five times the combined weight of all humans in the world or 3,000 Empire State buildings. A whole city made from garbage every year. Hard to imagine?

Let’s follow your dinner from farm to fork to see if and how that is possible.

 

Our food’s journey

ON a visit to a local farm—the very beginning of the food-supply chain—we can witness numerous reasons the food does not reach our plate.

We better be quick, since some clouds are forming in the distance, foretelling a storm. Have you checked the weather forecast today? The farmer certainly has, since he is utterly dependent on the weather.

Weather extremes like storms or droughts are the main reason for the loss of his harvest. Unfortunately, climate change is loading the dice for ever more increasing extremes, as typhoon-plagued Philippine farmers will readily tell you.

Such extremes are often followed by pest infestations, resulting in further loss. But also malfunctioning machinery or on-farm losses in storage, due to rodents, parasites or fungi are widespread, particularly in low-income countries.

Such inherent losses are complemented by selective harvesting, due to economic factors—such as regulations and standards for quality and appearance. If a tomato is not round, red and shiny enough, it may well not be sold, and, thus, not harvested.

Say, the tomato is deemed suitable and leaves the farm; even now it is not saved, since it is still a long way to your table. Direct production losses are followed by post-harvest loss. Again, heat, humidity and pests can spoil food.

You don’t want rotten tomato or some moldy rice with your beef, do you? Such vegetables and rice are lost.

This does not only apply to your dish, but happens on a large scale. Up to 45 percent of  rice vanishes this way in China, and as much as 80 percent in Vietnam. Other low-income countries experience similar challenges: poor infrastructure and transportation, lack of refrigeration and inadequate packaging result in high losses.

 

Just too much to finish?

BUT even if such infrastructure is in place, as is the case in most industrialized countries, it is still not dinnertime. Beforehand, you or your chef has to go to the shops. And here we are, one step further along the food-supply chain, the retail level, where loss is largest in developed countries.

Nevertheless, inadequate market facilities, such as unsanitary conditions and lack of refrigeration, make it a problem of low-income countries, too. Just think of the last visit to the market with tomatoes sweltering in the sun.

Similarly, up to 55 percent of fruits and vegetables are lost due to poor temperature management during display.

Say, your chef managed to snatch a bunch of tomatoes, there is yet a lot that can go wrong. Often planning, communication and coordination is lacking, in particular, in central kitchens.

He might have just bought too many tomatoes, since less guests show up than expected, or the kitchen help already did the shopping.

Much greater factors at this stage are, however, again quality standards that overemphasize appearance as well as the interpretation of best before, sell-by or use-by dates add. The bottle of beer was already expired? Sorry, we have to ditch it, and you have to go with tap water. Nonetheless, at the time of disposal food is often still edible, and drinks drinkable.

Sounds familiar from your fridge, where there rot some veggies in the back? Or from the last party, where there was just too much cake to finish? Poor planning and leftovers in households contribute to the biggest wastage in the food-supply chain, especially in the industrialized world. Just take the allegedly green Germany as example, where 61 percent of food waste occurs at the household level.

Combined, all these indeed amount to a staggering 1.3 billion tons, lost or wasted every year—the equivalent to more than half of the world’s annual cereals crop. It is highest in North America with 294 kilograms (kg) of food lost per person per year, and lowest in Southeast Asia with still 125 kg of food—mainly fruits and vegetables.

And the problem is on the rise. US per capita food waste has progressively increased by 50 percent from 1974 till 2009, symptomatic for industrialized countries and emulated by developing and transitional countries.

 

The hidden costs on our bill

WHAT does this ever-increasing problem mean then, besides leaving the table still slightly hungry?

It means that our global agriculture and food production system is very inefficient. This inefficiency produces high costs. For you, in order to have the same-sized dinner as usual, the bill will be one-third higher.

How much higher this is, showed a recent assessment of yearly discarded, purchased and edible food in the US, accounting for $43 billion. Quite a big tip. However, our food does not only have obvious, economic costs, one can see on the bill, but also well-hidden environmental and social costs.

For instance, 70 percent of our fresh water globally goes into producing food, like your dinner. Each kilogram of your beef requires 15,000 liters of water, of your rice 3,000 liters and of your tomatoes 240 liters.

Then wasting food not only uses water, but also land. Around half of the world’s 100 million square kilometer of fertile land is already used to grow food. A twentieth hectare is needed to supply your rice and a whole hectare for your beef.

In a nutshell, food is responsible for about one-quarter of climate impacts from private consumption and about one-third of other environmental impacts, such as deforestation, land degradation, or biodiversity loss. If food is wasted or lost, the environmental impacts related to its production have been in vain.

In addition to the undue environmental impacts, the disposal of food discards causes pollution: the leftovers of your dinner will end up on a landfill, making up the largest component of materials sent there.

In the landfill, the residues of your dinner break down, resulting in the production of methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and releasing nutrients, which can pollute water bodies.

Such pollution, climatic change, deforestation and biodiversity loss are particularly relevant to Southeast Asia, the ultimate biodiversity hot spot, and very vulnerable to the effects of global warming, as the Asean Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) calls attention to. The center coordinates conservation and sustainable management of Southeast Asia’s vibrant biodiversity, thus also addressing agricultural influences. In this endeavor, GIZ, the German development cooperation arm, supports the Philippine-based center.

The Philippines itself provides a sad example for environmental costs of food waste: it is the third most vulnerable country to climate change, large parts are deforested, air and water is polluted, and 90 percent of coral reefs, as the prime source of protein, are endangered.

Can we really afford such undue costs?

This would be at least hard to explain to the about 925 million undernourished people worldwide and the 2.6 million children dying of hunger every year. Mind you, food security is still a major concern in large parts of the developing world, and global demand for food will increase for at least another 40 years.

“In a world of 7 billion people, set to grow to 9 billion by 2050, wasting food makes no sense—economically, environmentally and ethically,” to quote the executive director of the UN Environment Programme (Unep) Achim Steiner.

 

Lessons learnt from Genghis Khan

FOOD waste is not only unaffordable, but also unnecessary. Why? Let’s take a glance at Mongolia, one of the fastest growing economies in the world and one that is aiming for a transition to a green economy.

“It is not a big waster or loser of food, but the traditional and nomadic life of many of its people does have some ancient answers to the modern-day challenge of food waste,” Steiner points out.

The Mongol general Genghis Khan and his soldiers used a traditional food called Borts to gallop across Asia, not reliant on elaborate supply chains. Borts is essentially concentrated beef equal to the protein of an entire cow but condensed to a little ball. This remarkable method of keeping food, without refrigeration, maps out a way to preserving and thus, not wasting food.

Aptly, Mongolia is the global host for this week’s World Environment Day, with the motto “Think. Eat. Save: Reduce Your Foodprint.” It is also the name of a campaign that Unep and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN, in cooperation with many partners from the public and private sector, launched earlier this year.

Every year on June 5, people across the planet celebrate the World Environment Day, to improve the environment now and for the future. This year they come together to show how to reduce your personal foodprint, whether in your home, whether on your farm, whether in the supermarket, in a canteen, in a hotel or anywhere else where food is prepared and consumed.

 

Think, eat, save

LEAVING a smaller foodprint is a child’s play. With relative ease and a few simple changes to our habits, we can significantly cut the jaw-dropping food squandering. Just think, eat, save.

First, think: As we have seen, food loss and waste stem to a large extend from consumer behavior.

Let’s just be a bit better informed and organized, and a bit less picky. A best-before-date does not necessarily mean, we have to toss it straightaway. Also, planning of food shopping and proper storage is not too hard. And why not take the slightly misshaped tomato next time. Ugly veggies are equally jummy.

Valuing food a little more, and putting our values into practice, may well inspire decision-makers to do their share. More coordination along the entire food chain and smart investments in food infrastructure would make all the difference.

Secondly, eat. Enjoy your dinner, and if your eyes were just too big, just wrap it and eat it the next day. Likewise, many charity organizations already work with retailers to collect and use discarded food, which is still safe, tasty and nutritious. Let’s support them.

Last but not least, save. Not only some bucks on your dinner’s bill, but much more. Save our environment from the undue onslaught of modern agriculture. Save yourself the trouble of building cities from food, waste, instead save people from going to bed hungry.

It has never been easier to save the world. This is your unique chance to slow down climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and starvation, while at the same time enjoying all three-thirds of your dinner. Three-thirds of your rice, three-thirds of your beef, three-thirds of your veggies, and of course, three-thirds of your ice-cold beer.

Bon appétit!

 

• (Philipp Gassner is a consultant for the Asean Centre for Biodiversity-Biodiversity and Climate Change Project.)

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