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Food wastage: Economic, social and environmental impact

Food waste or food loss is food that is discarded or lost uneaten. The causes of food waste or loss are numerous and occur at the stages of production, processing, retailing and consumption.

In terms of economic impacts, food waste represents high waste management costs and money wasted, given the considerable amount of edible food thrown away every year. Such waste management costs include the maintenance of landfills (where food waste is most often disposed) as well as transport costs, operations costs in the treatment plants, and separation costs in some cases. Biogenic waste (food residues) usually show a high water content and therefore low heat value, heavily influencing the calorific value of the waste and therefore the energy efficiency of combustion plants. Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) estimates that the portion of food waste which can be avoided represents an average economic cost of USD 665 per household per year.

Wasting food also raises social questions, particularly given the current global financial crisis, rising food prices and international food shortages. If only one-fourth of the food lost or wasted globally was consumed it would be sufficient to feed 870 million people, 12 per cent of the world’s current population. Food loss and waste drive up the price of food. Reducing food loss and waste is a key strategy towards ensuring food security for a projected 9 billion people in 2050.

There are three main types of waste that our society currently has to deal with. “The household or domestic waste, the business waste and the hazardous & controlled waste”

The “domestic waste” is the waste that households produce and that goes to the waste disposal. “Business waste” is the waste that is produced by any kind of industry and finally the “hazardous & controlled waste” which is dangerous and can injure humans and therefore needs to be removed very carefully.

A large amount of the household and business waste will either be “buried in landfill sites” or will be incinerated and the energy that will be generated during the burning process will be used but both methods have a negative effect on the environment The central issue of landfill is that “organic waste converts into methane”, a “greenhouse gas that is twenty-one times more potent than carbon dioxide”

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) more than 64 per cent of all waste was disposed of into landfill sites. Since landfill is an inexpensive method to dispose of waste it is the most common method in the United Kingdom and as a consequence, all “industrialized countries are running out of suitable sites due to existing sites are filling up fast”.

Land close to the city is too expensive therefore the best option for big cities is to fall back on land located outside of the city although “higher transport costs” are involved.  As well, incineration “causes problems. When waste is burnt, Gases from incineration may cause air pollution and contribute to acid rain, while the ash from incinerators may contain heavy metals and other toxins. Exposure to hazardous wastes, particularly when they are burned, can cause various other diseases.

All the labour, water, and resources used to produce; process, move, package, store, and discard food waste could have been used in a multitude of ways that are beneficial to society while eliminating the strain on our environment. Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would save enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lacks a secure supply of food. Fresh food spoilage is a USD 1 trillion problem. If even a quarter of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people.

Apart from the wastage of the food produced, the resources lost in the form of inputs during food production are also considerable. For instance, 25 per cent of fresh water, used to produce food, is ultimately wasted, even as millions of people still don’t have access to drinking water. In addition, approximately 45 per cent of India’s land is degraded primarily due to deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, and excessive groundwater extraction to meet the food demand.

Besides this, nearly300 million barrels of oil used to produce food is also ultimately wasted. Taking all of it into consideration, the actual worth of money per year in India from food wastage is estimated at a whopping Rs 58,000 crore.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) warns that food shortages represent one of the biggest risks to global stability over the next decade as countries are increasingly affected by climate change. Even though the world produces enough food to feed twice the world’s present population, food wastage is ironically behind the billions of people who are malnourished. It is time to recognise this colossal scale of waste and take appropriate action that not only benefits humanity but the environment as well.

When faced with a challenge, one must utilize every tool in the shed. Efforts to reduce food waste through technology and better food policies should be combined with efforts to reduce consumption of animals. Collectively, this would mean significant reductions in the carbon footprint of our food system and help to end world hunger. And these opportunities do not require increased yields or serious shifts in production practices. Largely, they depend on improved consumer behaviours.

  •                                                                                               –  NAVEED AHAMAD

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