Food Waste & the 2050 Global Crisis
The global food system is failing. The worldwide population is set to rise to eleven billion people by 2050, yet we are already unable to feed our seven billion inhabitants. Over one billion people do not have enough to eat; increasing the population by 50% in such a short time-frame will be detrimental to our environment and our species. Measures must be taken throughout the food system to moderate demand, reduce waste, improve governance, and increase production.
A paradigm shift is needed in thinking about how, what, and where food is produced by connecting the farm gate to the dinner plate. Food needs to be produced in ways that allow for sustained supply, without compromising vital ecosystems. While new technologies such as hydroponics and plant genomics offer opportunities, benefits will not arise without investment and research.
Increasing food availability is not sufficient. Food waste occurs at every level of the food chain, from producers to suppliers to consumers, with critical consequences on the economy, food security, the fight against hunger, and the environment. Reductions in food waste and less meat-intensive diets are needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ecosystem disruption.
Food Waste at the United Nations
In 2015, the UN outlined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) described as “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all,” addressing the challenges of poverty, inequality and climate change. The SDGs are designed to build a global partnership to improve lives and protect the environment.
Goals which are specifically designed to counteract the 2050 Global Food Crisis:
– Waste Less Food and Support Local Farmers
Profound change is needed in global food systems. Current soils, freshwater, oceans, forests and biodiversity are being rapidly degraded, with climate change putting additional pressure on resources.
– Avoid Wasting Water
Millions of people die every year from inadequate water supply. Water scarcity, poor water quality and inadequate sanitation negatively impact food security. Currently, over two billion people are living with reduced access to freshwater resources and by 2050, at least one in four people is likely to live in a country affected by chronic fresh water shortages .
– Responsible Consumption and Production
Halving food loss at every link of the supply chains is core to the concept of food waste management.
Food Waste in Ireland
Ireland is the world’s second most food-secure nation worldwide, behind only Singapore, beating the US and UK into third and fourth place respectively. The Global Food Security Index evaluates the affordability, availability, quality and safety of food and food systems across the world. Essentially, this means that only Singapore is better equipped than Ireland to feed its population.
Yet despite nurturing this environment of food prosperity, we are monumentally bad at managing the food we produce. Ireland is guilty of the highest rate of individual food waste across the entire EU, generating over one million tonnes of food waste annually, despite 15% of the population experiencing food poverty (that’s 750,000 people).
Then there’s the gluttonous, laissez-faire Irish affinity for hotel breakfast buffets. What is it that makes a person who would normally have a sensible breakfast of porridge or fruit or toast suddenly turn into Homer Simpson in the presence of a breakfast buffet? Is it about getting value for money? Is it gluttony? Stacking sausage on top of sausage with bacon teetering on the edge of the plate as the pudding, toast and hashbrowns struggle to cope under the mountainous pile of eggs.
This is not unique to Ireland. It’s actually an evolutionary tactic known as “ingestion analgesia” where our bodies stock as much food as possible in case we need to survive for long periods without another meal. Canteens, buffets and breakfast buffets in particular are the cause of more food waste than any other aspect of the hospitality industry. Research shows extremely high reduction rates in hotel food waste when buffets are replaced with à la carte menus.
Ireland is fast becoming an internationally renowned bastion for food, producing and exporting some of the highest quality produce anywhere in the world. It would benefit everyone if we could make the country a bastion of food waste reduction as well.
Food Waste Solutions
The main destination for food wasted along the supply chain is landfills, even when the majority of this food is perfectly suitable for human consumption. A more environmental and socially-aware system would be to diverge waste to livestock markets for animal feeding or donating to non-profit organisations, such as food banks or school meal programmes.
A Europe-wide study found that portion size is a key determinant to food waste in the hospitality sector. The study suggests that restaurants examine what type of foods tend to be left over and modify dishes accordingly. The study also shows that for this to be successful will require improved staff training for menu planning, purchasing and storage.
One-third of farmed fruits and vegetables never reach supermarket shelves due to the high cosmetic standards. One-third! That’s 50 million tonnes of fruit and veg grown across Europe discarded every year simply for how it looks. They’re just as delicious and just as nutritious, but they don’t look like they were drawn by a professional cartoonist; so they go to the bin.
In Portugal, a new measure to counter food loss is the “Ugly fruit project.” It aims to recover fruits and vegetables which do not meet the aesthetic standards to be sold in supermarkets. The project has rescued an estimated 20,000 meals per month in the Lisbon area alone! So please, the next time you go shopping, pick the ugliest fruits and vegetables you can find.
We need to take personal responsibility for the food we waste, by reducing the amount of food thrown in the bin every week. We all do it – we’re all guilty; we buy lots of fresh fruits and vegetables with the best of intentions, but much of this precious produce ends up in the bin.
Eat Less Meat
Currently, 36% of the calories produced by the world’s crops are being used for animal feed. If this was directed at human consumption, it would create 70% more calories, which could feed up to four billion more people. FOUR BILLION! Animal products provide only 18% of our calories but use an astoundingly unsustainable 83% of global farmland.
Overconsumption of meat and industrial meat production has the greatest combined negative impact on environmental and human health. It would be impossible to convert everyone to veganism or vegetarianism, and futile to even try. But is it really unreasonable to insist people reduce their meat intake? If you want to eat meat more than three times per week, I suggest a hunting licence.
Hydroponic farming, also called “vertical farming,” is an indoor, soil-free, water-based process. Plants are stacked in shelving units inside polytunnels or glasshouses and fed using a system of circulating, nutrient-rich water.
Hydroponic systems can grow more plants in the same amount of space as traditional farming. Roots don’t need to spread to find water because water and nutrients are delivered directly to them, greatly increasing yields, reducing water waste, and using far fewer chemicals.
Governmental intervention is vital to the success of any future food waste initiatives. A carrot and stick approach of tax incentives and penalties could turn attitudinal change into behavioural change. Food waste education is also paramount to changing habits. Governments must prioritise food waste management, including compulsory training and guidelines across the food chain. Food waste must also be taught from an early age and included in school curricula. Governments must consult experts. In Ireland, chefs such as Conor Spacey and JP McMahon are crusading against food waste. Conor Spacey is the Culinary Director of Food Space, a sustainably-minded, catering company operating a zero-waste system. JP McMahon’s three Galway restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Aniar, use only seasonal, Irish ingredients, greatly limiting air miles, while minimising waste by transferring leftovers from one restaurant to another. This kind of passion and expertise would help to create meaningful, effective legislation.
Mark Comerford is a chef, food blogger, and founder of The Writing Room – a creative outlet for aspiring young writers. Follow The Writing Room and his blog, No Eggs, No Milk, No Problem.