#16 food & farming
Isabel Pleisnitzer

Up-Cycling Our Food

About one-third of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted in the food production and consumption systems. This translates to 198 million hectares, about the size of Mexico, used each year to grow a huge amount of food that never ends up on anyone's plate.

All around the globe a number of initiatives are popping up to break this waste chain, demonstrating in innovative and creative ways what the future of a more sustainable food system might look like.

“The expiration date is 12/08/2015 – I better buy the milk behind it, which expires on 24/08/2015 - I might not use it until the 12th of August.”

This thought process is probably familiar to most consumers in Western societies, who might make similar decisions on a regular basis. But do we also think about the implications of our actions?

The amount of cropland used to grow this amount of lost and wasted food is 198 million hectares per year, which is about the size of Mexico.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Resources Institute (WRI), about one-third of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted in the food production and consumption systems. This amounts around 1 trillion US dollars worth of food. To visualize the problem: The amount of cropland used to grow this amount of lost and wasted food is 198 million hectares per year, which is about the size of Mexico. These numbers and figures may seem exaggerated, but they tell the story of mindless consumption in the 21st century.

Expanding on the above example with milk: 20% of the global production of dairy products is wasted each year. The graph below shows the different stages and the amount of diary product lost worldwide.

Balkendiagramm zum Thema Milcherzeugnis.
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome 2011

In addition to the amount wasted at every stage of the food production chain, the chart also depicts the distribution of waste, whether it is post-harvest or after-retail in our houses. Regional divergences are notable. The graph below addresses the regional distribution of food waste, distinguishing between developing and developed countries along the food production chain.

Informal settlements offer an economic and social base that new towns have failed to provide.

Balkendiagramm zum Thema Essensverschwendung.
Source: WRI analysis based on FAO. 2011. Global food losses and food waste—extent, causes and prevention. Rome: UN FAO.

The graph clearly shows the huge imbalance between industrialized and developing countries in how natural resources are handled.

Many consumers look for the healthiest and prettiest products, so governments and the food industry have set up multifarious systems of quality standards.

In developing countries, food losses occur earlier in the food production chain and usually behind the scenes. Most problems arise in production and post-harvest, since storage and transport conditions are often poor. The majority of rural farmers live in remote areas, so getting to the market is often a long and burdensome journey. Bad road conditions and inadequate market conditions, such as heat and humidity, spoil produce and damage food. As a consequence, farmers cannot sell all their produce at the market and some must be discarded before it reaches the consumer. Bad infrastructure is not the only challenge facing farmers seeking to sell their products. Buyers also reject a huge amount of food. Many consumers look for the healthiest and prettiest products, so governments and the food industry have set up multifarious systems of quality standards. This means a lot of the food produced does not meet quality standards because it is not the right size, does not curve just right, have the right brightness of red, yellow or green, or is not juicy enough. Produce that does not pass quality controls is then wasted, although it does not differ in nutritional content, taste or other attributes from the pretty fruits or vegetables.

The numbers estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) seem to indicate that people are not aware of the social, economic, and moral implications of food waste.

This passage underlines how the problem of food waste starts early in the chain, but it does not stop there. While most produce is lost during the harvest and post harvest in developing countries, in industrialized countries food loss occurs mostly after retail. If we convert the above-mentioned food losses into calories, it turns out that one in four calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten. In a world in which we still have around 805 million people suffering from hunger, where farmers face volatile food prices, and countries are struggling with social unrest due to food shortages, these statistics point towards a tragic and paradoxical situation. The numbers estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) seem to indicate that people are not aware of the social, economic, and moral implications of food waste. People tend to take their food for granted, since the shelves at the supermarket are always full. This fact reveals a paradox: The supermarkets and warehouses are full, while at the same time non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and politicians warn there is a resource problem and pose the big question: "How are we going to feed the expected nine billion people in the future?" The figures cited above clearly show that the food issue is an allocation problem instead of a resource problem (FAO).

Since food loss and food waste are happening at different levels, there are various possibilities for counteracting waste at each stage. To get an idea of how civil society is acting to raise awareness and fight food loss and waste, I will present a broad overview of original and simple ways motivated people are taking hands-on action worldwide. Let us start our journey along the waste chain at the beginning of the food production chain, which is right after the harvest.

Hungry Harvest's main message is to be open to the three-legged carrot, the hunch-backed cucumber, two kissing strawberries or any other natural fate produce may suffer.

“Eat ugly fruit. There is no reason to choose 'perfect' produce over 'ugly' produce, because after all, it’s what’s on the inside that counts!”

This statement is from John Zamora, the co-founder of “Hungry Harvest“. “Hungry Harvest“ is the result of a pilot project started by Ben Simon and Evan Lutz. They recognized a serious problem in the agricultural system that results in tons of food being wasted because of its imperfect appearance. So they started selling 'ugly' produce from local farmers to students at low prices to counteract this waste in a pilot project was called “Recovered Food CSA”. This project was further developed and they expanded their network. “Hungry Harvest“ gleans food from local farms and suppliers who provide them with surplus produce. They fill bags of different sizes to ensure that even these food items will not be wasted due to poor consumer behavior. “Hungry Harvest“ delivers the produce to their partner’s warehouse, the Manna Food Center, which distributes the bags to consumers. Their main message is to be open to the three-legged carrot, the hunch-backed cucumber, two kissing strawberries or any other natural fate produce may suffer.

Its social component is part of what makes “Hungry Harvest“ so special. It assists local farmers, but also families in need. For every pound sold to one of their members, they donate a pound of produce to a local food bank, homeless shelter or socially disadvantaged family. In addition, they hire workers from the “Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless” to help with the sorting and bagging process.

“The philosophy is that each grain of food that has been cooked should be served to satisfy the hunger of the needy” (Annakshetra Senior Programme Manager, Dr Ambika Nag).

Going one step further on the waste chain and taking quite a few steps East on the globe, there is another interesting initiative preventing tons of food waste after it had been purchased or cooked. On our journey along the food waste chain, we have now reached the level of processed food. The “Annakshetra Foundation” collects and distributes leftovers from weddings, parties and hotels. It has also taken on the responsibility of distributing unused “Prasadam”, which is holy food offered to the Lord in temples but not entirely consumed, to the poor in Jaipur City in India.

“Food wastage is not just wastage of precious food grain but it is also a gross misuse of all the efforts right from agriculture production to transport, fuel and manpower” (Dr. Vivek Agrawal, Trustee Secretary of the Centre for Development Communication (CDC). “Annakshetra” is an NGO that was established in November 2010 by the CDC in Jaipur. This foundation has started an initiative for “Zero Food Wastage”, the first of its kind in India.

Why is India an important example of possible initiatives in the battle against food waste? As an emerging country, India is experiencing a monumental change regarding its population's lifestyle. The Indian middle and upper classes are growing, and the amount of food served but not eaten at social events such as weddings, anniversaries, birthday parties and even socio-religious occasions is rising enormously as a consequence. To countervail this wastage, “Annakshetra” tries to keep all cooked food out of the bin and distribute it to those who are struggling for food. As Senior Programme Manager Dr. Ambika Nag explains: “The philosophy is that each grain of food that has been cooked should be served to satisfy the hunger of the needy.”

Another creative initiative in the emerging nation Brazil is also taking issue with food waste at social events, and at at restaurants and events where too much foods tends to be ordered. In the city of Porto Alegre a restaurant is preventing food wastage in an original and innovative way, as explained in their video.

This video shows a smart initiative for reducing the amount of food served in the restaurant by offering customers a plate that has been cut with a message about food waste. This means people put less on their plates, which means they are more likely to finish their meal and not toss one third in the bin. This initiative illustrates that we as consumers have a lot of ways of raising awareness and counteracting food waste. We have to be more conscious about what we eat and how much we really need to eat. This example shows a practical way to avoid food wastage and at the same time reveals how inappropriate the portions common in so many restaurants truly are.

We live in a world that has been too formalized, where each and every single step in the food production chain is regulated, often inefficiently in terms of social and ecological impacts.

Restaurants and hotels are responsible for some of the highest levels of food waste, since most plan a big buffer for food or are forced to dump their food due to food safety laws. A systematic error exists here: We live in a world that has been too formalized, where each and every single step in the food production chain is regulated, often inefficiently in terms of social and ecological impacts. Fortunately, a few governments have reacted in response to this pressure from civil society, and launched new regulations and laws. With the support of legal efforts from our administrations and governments, we can transform our food system from a waste chain into a sustainable food production chain.

Recent French policy is a good example of legal measures to reduce food waste. The Assemblée Nationale recently passed a law forbidding supermarkets larger than 400 sqm2 from tossing unsold food into the bin. Instead they have to donate or reuse it as fertilizer or animal feed. To further raise awareness of this issue, Arash Deramarsh, the municipal councillor of Courbevoie (France), launched the “STOP Food Waste in Europe” online petition in seven different countries. By July 9, 2015, the petition had over a half a million signatures and a formal proposal had been drafted a by a French member of the European Parliament. This food waste amendment was included in the “On Resource Efficiency: Moving Towards a Circular Economy” report adopted by the EU Parliament. Now it is up to each country to act and curb food waste.

This article has explored different ways of modifying and transforming the food production chain at every stage based on examples from conscious and motivated people striving to change this paradoxical system. Additionally, it has shown once more that bottom-up solutions can be successful and often the most effective way to raise awareness and actually effect change.

If you want to engage in turning the waste chain into a sustainable food production chain, you can find initiatives all over the globe here:

Photo: “Outta Oranges“” by orkomedix
2015 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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