Remember what our grandmas always used to tell us: Do not waste food – think of all the hungry children in Africa.
At my recent TEDx talk, I mentioned that global food waste could feed every starving child, man and woman on this planet – three times over in fact! Here is some food for thought:
A global shame
Globally, human beings produce enough food waste to feed 3 billion people: over 30% of the world's food supply is wasted. The annual food waste in Italy could feed 44 million people – all of Ethiopia's undernourished population. The annual food waste in France is enough to feed the entire population of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Just five per cent of United States' food waste could feed 4 million people for one day.
In 2011, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted that there is enough food in the world, yet millions are still starving – and unless we take action, it will devastate our planet.
Who could possibly disagree: food waste is a global shame, especially in a world in which over a billion people are starving. And yet: everybody is waiting for somebody else to take action.
Can we send our leftovers to starving children in Africa? No, that is clearly not a permanent or sustainable solution. The problem in Africa is food loss. The amount of food lost per year in sub-Saharan Africa could feed 48 million people. Due to poor harvesting facilities, storage, packaging, distribution and the lack of a stable infrastructure, good food is lost in the fields before it even has a chance to reach peoples' bellies.
Food loss and food waste
In the West we waste approximately 40% of our food. This 40% happens at the end of the food value chain – by retailers and consumers. The same percentage of food, 40%, is lost in developing countries, though here the food losses happen at the beginning of the value chain. If we look at global food wasters, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), we find that Western populations, such as EU member states, top the list. Here approximately 179 kg is wasted per capita per year. In developing countries, only 6-11 kg is wasted per capita per year.
This global imbalance must be corrected. But how does the food we waste in our homes in the Western world actually affect developing countries and hungry children in Africa? Does it actually matter?
Indirectly, it does.
I participated in a panel debate during the People's Meeting (Folkemødet) in Bornholm at which the Secretary-General of the Danish Red Cross, Anders Ladekarl, said the following:
"The Western world's overconsumption of food is affecting global food prices: The more we in the West consume (and the more we throw out), the greater global demand for food becomes – and the higher food prices rise globally."
Let's imagine a pile of bananas, grown and produced in a developing country, transported all the way across the globe to a Western country just to be wasted because of some silly cosmetic reason. People in the very same developing country lack food. Imagine looking those hungry people in the eyes and telling them that the good bananas grown in their very own country are being thrown away just as fast they arrive in the Western world.
Food is the new gold
At my most recent panel debate at the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition 4th Annual Forum on Food and Nutrition, I addressed the food challenges of future generations. One of the speakers at the Forum, globally respected author and founder of the Worldwatch Institute, Lester R. Brown, mentioned that food was the new oil. I would say, however, that food is the new gold.
Why? Because fighting food scarcity will be one of the central geopolitical issues of the future.
1st fact: Population growth. By 2050, the earth's population will reach 9 billion people. By then, food production must be increased by 70 per cent to meet demand. Today we already produce enough food waste to feed 3 billion human beings. Reducing food waste should number among our key focal areas. The UN estimates that in just 20 years, the earth's population will need at least 50 per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water.
2nd fact: Climate change. The increasing changes to our climate affect the world's agriculture and thus, the production of food. Floods, droughts and other increasingly irregular climate patterns will only worsen in future. More and more farmers are being forced to use GMOs and pesticides to ensure the survival of their harvest due to a changing climate, which in turn affects the loss of biodiversity.
3rd fact: Increasing food prices. This third fact has its roots in the 1st and 2nd facts, but additional factors include: the financial crisis, land grabbing (and the resulting desertification and deforestation), the world trade market structure, the global imbalance in food distribution, global and local food policy making, a lack of infrastructure, and a general lack of transparency in the food production value chain from farm to fork.
We must remember that there is enough food in the world, more than enough. Yet billions are still starving.
Who is to blame?
So, who should we point the finger at? Who is to blame? The industry? The politicians? The farmers? The retailers? Ourselves?
At a conference in Bonn where I was a panel speaker, I learned from a fellow panel speaker from sub-Saharan Africa that African countries' agriculture often needs aid from the Western world. Unfortunately, this agricultural aid is often not used to improve agriculture. Instead, the money is appropriated by local politicians due to the lack of local infrastructure. In this particular case, a local politician bought 4 limousines from the agricultural aid money. This demonstrates that people on the ground are needed in Africa too in order to ensure that the money is indeed used to improve agriculture.
Sometimes I wonder if the global food waste scandal is a self-perpetuating system. Why have we, the consumers, become accustomed to such high standards that we cannot accept wonky fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets? Our choices affect the entire food production value chain and force farmers to toss out perfectly good fruits and vegetables because of the way they look.
Would there be a paradigm shift if Western countries were be able to cut their food waste? Would it affect developing countries? Would there be enough food for everyone? Is it even possible?
Yes, I think it is.
Imagine if every child, man and woman on this planet had enough food. Imagine what it would do to our human civilization. If every single human being on this planet had enough food, it would change our societies. It would stop wars, put an end to suffering and even change the course of human history. It could create a paradigm shift, a new era of peace on this planet. And I strongly believe that we can achieve that paradigm shift. That is why I have been working – for over 4 years and putting in over 40 volunteer hours a week – on the Stop Wasting Food movement. Because I strongly believe that humanity can and will come up with a solution. And I think about it every day.
We must remember that food is the most powerful basic necessity for human beings. It is what keeps us going. It is what is keeping us alive. Food waste is a clear indication that there is something fundamentally wrong with our civilization.
Look at nature: There is no food waste in nature whatsoever. Everything is used and recycled. Every resource is used intelligently. The only species on this planet unable to cut down on food waste is us humans.
You are in control
So, what are the solutions to the global food waste scandal? Are we still waiting for everybody else to do something about it?
Consumers have the power to change the entire system. And it would take just one simple personal step: stop wasting food. Will you continue to waste your food – and your money – after reading my article? Don't you think it's time for action?
Buy only what you actually need. Cook leftovers. Share food with your neighbors. Use it up. It is the simple wisdom of our grandmas, the very same grandmas who admonished us as children not to waste food and to think of all the hungry children in Africa. Do the industry and the retailers dictate your shopping habits – or do you? Who is actually in control of this situation? You are of course. You are in control.
Demand wonky fruit and vegetable in the stores. Don't fall for quantity discounts if you don't need that amount of food. Don't overstuff your plate at the cafeteria if you already know that you can only eat half. Ask for a doggy bag at a restaurant.
And speak your mind: Encourage positive action everywhere! Encourage the food industry to donate edible surplus food to charities. Join consumer movements. Encourage politicians to act.
The European Alliance against Food Waste
You see, I am neither a celebrity chef nor a politician. I am just a simple consumer. In 2008, I got very tired of food waste. I created a group on Facebook: "Stop Wasting Food". Today, over four years later, the Stop Wasting Food movement Denmark (Stop Spild Af Mad) has become Denmark's largest non-profit consumer movement against food waste. We now number over 7,000 members and enjoy the support of high-ranking politicians who even include our former Prime Minister. We have published an award-winning leftovers cookbook; we have brought the topic of food waste to numerous Danish and international print media, radio and TV; we distribute good surplus food to homeless people; we have convinced a large retail chain, Rema 1000, to drop all quantity discounts; and we have helped put the topic of food waste on the UN and EU agendas.
And we are all just ordinary consumers, ordinary people. But ordinary people can do extraordinary things.
Consumers cannot fight food waste alone though. All the stakeholders in the food production value chain must be involved: farmers, industry, retailers, canteens, restaurants and food services.
A new EU project involving a team of 21 partners (including the Stop Wasting Food movement) will take a joint stand against food waste. Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimising Waste Prevention Strategies (FUSIONS) is a 4-year European project to combat food waste. The 21 partners from the 13 European countries involved include universities, institutions, NGOs, companies, and FAO itself. The project has been funded by the European Commission's FP7 and more than 80 European organizations have expressed their support for FUSIONS. It is the world's first joint and transnational action to end food waste.
The project's initial objective is to standardize the measurement of food waste. The next goal is to create a European platform of governmental and non-governmental organizations and companies from the food chain, i.e. industry, retailers and consumer organizations. The platform aims to provide simplified data that can identify and evaluate new initiatives for reducing food waste. The results will be disseminated to the public, and technical and policy recommendations will be developed for the entire value chain and the EU. The platform will then activate, engage, and support the main stakeholders in the European food value chain in order to deliver a 50 per cent reduction in food waste by 2020.
Can FUSIONS help feed hungry children in Africa? In the long run, it can.
Transparency across the entire food production value chain must be achieved. And FUSIONS can help create that transparency.
But don't wait for FUSIONS, the industry, the EU, politicians or someone else to act. Take action yourself. No matter who we are, we are all consumers, we all eat, we all waste food - and we are all a part of the problem. And thus, we are also part of the solution.
The next time you are considering feeding good food to your rubbish bin, ask yourself: how many starving African families would approve of your actions?
There, you have your answer.
You have the power. You have the knowledge. Don't wait for someone else to take action. Do it yourself.
Stop wasting food.