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Food Waste: A Global and Local Perspective

After an intense food waste moment in the Balkans I decided to research which countries are managing their food waste effectively. In Bosnia and Herzegovina I stayed at a rafting camp that was known for its delicious, traditional food. Our meals were indeed delicious however the portions were incredibly huge. Their standard meals for 1 person could easily feed 2-3 people and there was always food sent back. After the experience I was concerned at the level of food waste as well as the financial loss to the organisation.

I decided to write to the owner and ask what was happening to the food as well as offer some suggestions about how to reduce food waste. He sent a great email back sharing his concern with the food waste challenge but in order to remain competitive in the rafting season, they believed they needed to continue to provide large quantities of food. He also shared that the leftover food gets fed to the pigs on their organic farm in an attempt to reduce the waste to landfill. After a few emails back and forth, he had some new initiatives to implement at the camp to minimise the food waste generated including slightly decreasing portions and tracking food wastage to see trends over times.

Why Does Food Waste Matter?

Food waste is a massive issue globally for a number of reasons. Firstly when food goes to landfill, it releases methane which is 30 times more harmful than Co2 emissions to the planet which contributes to climate change. Secondly, food production uses a massive amount of water, land and energy. Whenever food is thrown out, there resources have been squandered and could have been allocated elsewhere. Lastly, there are people around the world starving, so we really shouldn’t be wasting precious life giving food!!!

Food Waste Statistics Around The World

Interested by the food waste issue around the world, I found some statistics and insights from the FAO:

  • Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted.
  • Global quantitative food losses and waste per year are roughly 30% for cereals, 40-50% for root crops, fruits and vegetables, 20% for oil seeds, meat and dairy plus 35% for fish.
  • Every year, consumers in rich countries waste almost as much food (222 million tonnes) as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million tonnes).
Food losses in production vs consumption across regions. Source: FAO

The above graph shows that in higher income countries (Europe, North America & Oceania and Industrialised Asia) the food waste occurs more at a consumption level as opposed to lower income countries where it is lost in the supply chain. For lower income countries, working on creating better connectivity and efficiency in the supply chains will help reduce waste. Whereas in higher income countries, education and awareness is needed at a consumer level. Also portion control at restaurants and in supermarkets can help reduce this waste.

Food Waste Per Capita

I also found some statistics about food waste per capita. The statistics were compiled from the Food Sustainability Index 2017, which was developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Centre for Food & Nutrition Foundation (BCFN). Shockingly, Australia was the worst offender with an average of 361kg of food waste per person per year. Second on the list was the USA with an average of 278kg per person per year. However as the USA is about 10 times the size of Australia their mass food waste weighs in at about 90.7 billion kgs per year compared to Australia’s 8.9 billion kgs. As Australia is a small country with a strong agricultural industry, the statistic is a bit skewed. However, according to One Brown Planet, 86.7% of tomatoes are rejected and wasted due to superficial appearances. There are great food distribution organisations in Australia including OzHarvest, Yume and Second Bite who are all working to redistribute food waste in the supply chain to ensure if does not end up in landfill and reaches people in need. Further, according to Think Eat Save, ‘In a survey of more than 1,600 households in Australia in 2004, on behalf of the Australia Institute, it was concluded that on a country-wide basis, $10.5 billion was spent on items that were never used or thrown away. This amounts to more that $5,000 per capita/year.’ That study was conducted about 15 years ago, so the dollar figure is likely to have increased.

So although Australia is the worst offender at a per capita basis, the USA has a long road to reduce its 90 billion kgs of annual waste.

The question I am sure you’re all asking is which country has the lowest food waste per capita…! Well, from the surveyed countries, the answer was surprising and also convenient as it was my next destination…

Greece!!!

With a population of 10.7 million and a growing refugee and migrant population, the per capita waste is 44kg per year. That’s a total of 473 million kgs of food going to landfill. Before discussing the potential reasons for their low food waste, here is a great infographic by One Brown Planet showing some of the best and worst countries:

Source: to One Brown Planet

Greece’s Food Waste Initiatives

1. Informal food redistribution networks

There are established food distribution networks that divert food destined for landfill to those in need. However what I noticed on the streets of Athens was a more informal network. Local businesses would often leave out bread and certain vegetables that were still edible but probably past the use by for hospitality. Homeless people picked them up and if they didn’t, stray dogs and cats would often eat it. Majority of the stray dogs in Athens are tagged and vaccinated by the local Council. They were super friendly and always looked well fed. I found it quite common in the Balkans, Greece and Turkey to have stray ‘domesticated’ cats and dogs who roam the streets. I love the idea of a council having pets for everyone to enjoy and they also help reduce food waste so it’s a win win!

2. Formal food redistribution networks

Since the global financial crisis and Greece’s economy plummeting in the early 2000s, the need for food and support services had increased dramatically. The crisis still affects families today, as households lost 25 percent of their pre-crisis income, so much of their savings have evaporated. Many families rely on the pension of one grandparent which is difficult to maintain.

One of the most well known organisations started in the peak of the crisis is Boroume, which means ‘We Can.’

According to Ekathimerini, ‘Within seven years, it has helped save and offer to the needy at least 29 million portions of food and keeps working nonstop every day to this direction, founding member Alexandros Theodoridis told Xinhua.

“There is this oxymoron where on one hand there is waste of food and on the other hand you are hearing about more and more people in need of this food, but instead of receiving it, it was ending up in landfills,” Theodoridis said about the situation in 2011-2012.’

Boroume saves and offers more than 24,000 portions of food every day. It collaborates with 1,200 charitable institutions, soup kitchens and municipal social services all over Greece, and at least 1,300 sponsors.

3. Smart Food Cards

According to the European Commission website, there is a project in Heraklion to use IoT and digital channels to help consumers manage their food waste. ‘The project’s aim is to revolutionise the port city’s food system by taking a holistic management approach. The new approach will be three-pronged. Surplus resulting from the preparation of meals – such as untouched, intact food that is left over in restaurant kitchens –­ will be re-directed to a restaurant run by the municipality. Secondly, neighbourhood compost systems will be overhauled to make them more efficient. Finally, the project foresees the development of a ‘smart’ food card for citizens. This card will be linked to every consumer’s supermarket shopping card and inform them about what items they have left in their fridge and which are approaching their expiration date. It will even offer recipe suggestions for how best to prepare ingredients that need to be used up. The project will receive more than EUR 3 130 000 in ERDF funding.’

There weren’t any recent updates on the pilot other than the above information.

4. Hotel Food Waste Pact by WWF Greece

From a pilot originally from the USA, World Wildlife Fund Greece is working with some of the largest hotel chains including Grecotel Cape Sounio, Aquila Rithymna Beach on Crete, and Athens Marriott Hotel to reduce their food waste. The pilot will last for 3 months and will involve tracking and measurement of food waste as well as initiatives including adjusting supply of food, diverting food to charities and composting systems. Once the pilot is finished the WWF and partners will create a toolkit based on the findings for other hotels and hospitality companies to use to reduce their food waste. According to Greek Travel Pages, “‘The program focuses on the proper management of resources and the reduction of the hotel industry’s environmental footprint, while ensuring an excellent visitor experience,” said Vicky Barboka, “Better Life” Project Associate – WWF Greece. “Waste of food means waste of water, land and energy offered to us. Only if we begin to measure the volume of food waste, will we be able to understand the multidimensional cost of lost food, appreciate our sustenance, and look for ways to reduce waste so that we can gradually prevent it,” she added.

Practical Tips To Reduce Your Food Waste

  1. Don’t do a weekly shop with your car. Many people in Greece do their shopping on a daily basis at local grocery shops and walk home with their purchases. By walking you save emissions and also limit the amount you can take. Doing weekly shopping can seem more convenient however it often causes food spoiling. Make sure you remember your reusable shopping bags!
  2. Try capsule cooking. Instead of having Mexican one night and Malaysian the next, try to have weekly meals that use similar ingredients. Then you can still have a variety of meals, they just use similar ingredients which minimises waste. Check out a great blog introducing the capsule cooking concept here.
  3. Cook in season as much as possible. Going to local farmers markets is a great opportunity to find fresh produce and support local small businesses. As many large supermarkets are culprits for imposing unrealistic standards on the appearance of food, it is best to buy in season produce from farmers markets. Check out this awesome Aussie seasonal fruit and veggie list here.
  4. Get a compost system. There are so many compost systems that are super effective. Growing up we just had an area in the backyard for composting which was great. Many people use Bokashis and systems to deter rats and other pests. I had a small composting unit in my apartment in Melbourne and it sat on the balcony. It worked perfectly with worms and didn’t smell at all. They are definitely worth the investment!

Overall

In many countries around the world there are a range of initiatives helping to reduce food waste at a systemic level. From Government, NFPs and Businesses, each have a role to play to reduce food waste. As individuals, there are also small changes we can have that will divert food waste! In particular, higher income countries should be empowering the role of the individual as much of the waste happens at a household level.

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