by Clarissa Sim

Food waste today

Globally, more than 1 billion tons of food is lost or wasted each year – the size of 1.3 billion healthy Indian elephants standing on top of one another – to feed as many as 2 billion people. WIth the Covid-19 pandemic, there has only been a  drastic uptick in food waste.

“In a world of 7 billion people, set to grow to 9 billion by 2050, wasting food makes no sense — economically, environmentally and ethically,” U.N. Under-secretary General Achim Steiner said in commemoration of World Environment Day.

Food already hurts the environment – wasting it hurts it more

Food waste ends up in landfills and produces large amounts of methane. It is a greenhouse gas that is roughly 30 times more potent compared to carbon dioxide in terms of its heat-trapping abilities which contributes to global warming. Each year, the energy that has been put into growing this food that does not get consumed contributes 3.3 billion metric tons of annual carbon dioxide. Fuel for tractors used for planting and harvest, electricity for water pumps in the field, the power for processing and packaging facilities are wasted.

Furthermore, the energy and resources used to harvest also need to be taken into consideration. The production of agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the water used globally. Throwing out one kilogram of beef is equivalent to wasting 50,000 liters of water; throwing out a glass of milk, equates to wasting nearly 1000 liters of water.

Water is a precious commodity. The issue of water scarcity threatens the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)’s water security where more than 60% of the population has limited or no access to drinkable water. Extreme environmental events like droughts have hit Cape Town and water levels in the city dams fell by 21.8% from 2014 to 2015. The city has been forced to ration its water supply.

Food wastage results in the unnecessary degradation of land, deforestation and the elimination of wildlife habitats. Globally, an estimated 24% of land area has been affected by degradation. It is mainly due to extensive agriculture. 

To meet the growing demand for food, forests and grasslands have been converted to farm fields and pastures. 50,000 acres of forests are being cleared by farmers and loggers each day worldwide which is the equivalent of over 10,000 football fields being destroyed. This massive clearing of land has destroyed huge swaths of wildlife habitat. More than half a million species on land are homeless and are on the brink of going extinct. 

The conversion of forests and grasslands also increases the rate of soil erosion beyond the soil’s ability to maintain itself. Sediments and chemicals will then be discharged into water bodies resulting in contaminated rivers and streams. In addition, extensive agriculture can negatively affect soil quality which results in the loss of fertile land.  

Governments, food suppliers, distributors and you

Each Singaporean household throws away an estimated $258 worth of unconsumed food annually which is equivalent to 52 plates of nasi lemak. This issue on food waste is disturbing to me especially when millions of people around the world go hungry each day. In developing countries, food is lost due to poor transport infrastructure and storage facilities. Approximately a quarter of food loss could have been avoided if developing countries were equipped with the same level of refrigeration for the transportation and storage of food as developed countries (Smith, 2015). On the other side of the spectrum, food is being wasted at the retail level and by consumers in developed countries. 

Large stakeholders like governments, supermarkets, food distributors and the F&B industry play a role in building the necessary infrastructure and setting the right policies to bring about greater food resilience in the supply system. In Singapore, 46% of vegetables and fruits never make it from the farm to the markets or even to the fork because they are not the right shape or colour. “Ugly food” is one of the contributing factors to food waste. To reduce such wastage, FairPrice Xtra has introduced Great Taste Less Waste where fruits and vegetables that are left unsold due to blemishes are trimmed, repackaged and sold at a markdown price. 

Eateries can also utilize technology to battle food waste. Lumitics, a Singapore-based food waste tracking device, uses AI technology to weigh and identify what the F&B industry throws away. Reports are then generated such that the stakeholder is able to trim their purchases accordingly based on customers’ preferences. 

Even though this is largely out of our control as consumers, we too still have a part to play in driving change. Many of us find it convenient to just waste food because we do not directly see the amount of resources gone into food production. Furthermore, the wasted food pile is often out of our sight. What if we stopped to consider how this waste – a glaring sign of over-consumerism – impacts another person’s life? Think of farmers, the majority of whom are poor and under pressure to produce even more. Think of the degraded land and the biodiversity we have lost. Maybe that will then be a wake-up call for us – to realise how much we have been and are wasting each time we throw out produce and food. 

What should I do?

We can choose to be more conscientious food shoppers such that we do not bring down food waste to our own homes. Here are some simple methods that we can adopt: 

  1. Bringing a grocery list so that we are more mindful about how much we are purchasing. 
  2. Make a meal out of your leftover food! 
  3. Choosing slightly imperfect produce. Bonus tip: You can even get a discount for purchasing  “ugly” fruits and vegetables! 
  4. Joining food rescue groups like SG Food Rescue to salvage edible food that would have otherwise gone to waste. Bonus tip: After the rescue mission, volunteers are  also allowed to take home the remaining rescued food.
  5. Take stock of what you have in your pantry every week to prevent consumables from reaching their expiration date and getting thrown away.
  6. Request for smaller portions while ordering food if you suspect you may not be able to finish them.

    Clarissa is an undergraduate studying Social Work at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). She is passionate about world issues and social issues. A firm believer in being a positive change agent to the world, she hopes to inspire a domino effect within others. Being a curious learner, she also desires to be a voice for various world issues.

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