The holidays are all about excess. Overpriced gifts, overbooked schedules, and—of course—too much food.
Some five million tons of food—enough to fill the John Hancock Building more than 14 times—will be wasted between Thanksgiving and the end of 2013. Worldwide, some 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted annually, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
In the United States, roughly one-third of food is thrown away as a result of over-buying and misinterpretation of expiration and sell-by dates. In the developing world, an equal amount of food is lost because of poor infrastructure, pests, and disease. As a result, all the hard work that farmers do to fertilize and irrigate crops goes to waste, putting them further into poverty.
And while wasting food presents a moral conundrum, it also presents environmental and social challenges that policy-makers, business leaders, and eaters need to be solve today, not tomorrow.
Food loss and waste is insidious. A little bit is lost in fields, a little is lost during transport, a little is lost in storage, and a little bit is lost in homes. The amount of food wasted in the U.S. each year totals some US$165 billion—and more than US$40 billion of that waste comes from households, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Recently, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called issued the Zero Hunger Challenge, propelling nations to increase access to food, prevent stunting, improve environmental sustainability in the food system, and increase productivity on farms as well as reduce all food loss and waste to zero.
And while Ban’s goal may seem ambitious, they’re more needed than ever before. According to the FAO, hunger has decreased by roughly 17 percent since the early 1990s to 842 million hungry people today. But progress has been uneven. More than 265 million people sub-Saharan Africa alone are hungry and at least 100 million tons of essential foods in the region are lost because of lack of roads, proper storage facilities, and markets.
Earlier this year, Ban called for nations to correct the inequity of food waste in a world plagued by hunger. “By reducing food waste, we can save money and resources, minimize environmental impacts and, most importantly, move towards a world where everyone has enough to eat,” he urged.
Farmers, food processors and retailers, and consumers are already taking the initiative to alleviate food loss and waste by finding innovative ways to reduce food loss and food waste. Some of the most interesting solutions are from organizations such as Growing Power, which picks up and composts some 400,000 pounds of food waste from Midwest businesses each week. In New York, City Harvest collects food that would have otherwise been wasted from restaurants and distributes it to those in need. And the Food Recovery Network is mobilizing university students around the country to distribute food from college cafeterias and catering facilities to homeless shelters.
On the other side of the world, fishers in The Gambia are smoking abundant fish harvests. In India, farmers are drying papayas and mangos to help make sure that families have access to vitamin A and extra income from the sale of dried fruit throughout the year.
And in Pakistan, the United Nations helped farmers reduce grain storage losses by up to 70 percent by replacing jute bags and mud silos with metal grain storage containers that prevent moisture and vermin from eating grain.
On the policy side, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration need to work together to ensure sell-by, expiration dates, and use-by dates are regulated and easy for consumers to understand.
And more is needed to combat food loss and waste internationally.
Today, at the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition 5th Annual Forum, the Milan Protocol was released, calling on international leaders and food system stakeholders to improve agricultural sustainability, control food price instability, encourage healthy food choices, improve land rights—and combat food waste.
In 2014, the world leaders, businesses, civil society, and eaters should resolve to make waste in the food system part of our past, not our future.