One-third of all food that we produce goes to waste. Inefficiencies in the food chain mean that food is lost, thrown or rotten in every single step from farm-to-plate. Food waste is wrong for several reasons, not least because millions of people around the world go to sleep hungry. The food that we waste requires water, fertilisers, energy and land. Growing food generates emission, so food waste has a large carbon footprint. Put simply, food waste is terrible for the environment.
In our aim to feed a growing world population, technology will be our best friend in reducing food loss and waste in the food supply chain. There is a type of food waste though that innovative tech can’t prevent: overeating. It’s the most problematic, the worst kind of food waste. And the scary thing is that most don’t even recognise overeating as food waste.
Overeating is “social”
The matter of fact is that excessive food consumption is a significant form of food waste. It contributes to over 10% of total food that goes to “waste”. Overeating is so common, it’s a normal practice to eat until you can’t move. Then there is societal pressure. Warning: the rest of the paragraph is a rant about my middle-class problems. When I’m invited for dinner, I’m expected to eat until I nearly explode. If I meet someone for a meal, I end up having a three-course meal just because they have it too. In the pub, I pile up the calories by drinking too much. Oh and there’s the post drinks kebab. It’s a miracle that I’m still slim. I know that it won’t last long if I maintain my current lifestyle.
Almost everyone I know has the same lifestyle. Overeating is the norm in the developed world, and a lot of developing world, too. Overeating is so popular, there are several sports around it. I, myself, have been guilty of taking part in several eating competitions with my friends and family. The popularity of gorging on food means that binge eaters are now superstar video bloggers and several run TV shows. A study presented at the European Congress on Obesity suggests that social media stars may influence increased calorie consumption in children. If that’s not enough, we’re bombarded with junk food ads on family shows that give us the extra nudge to eat more calories.
Public health threat
Overeating is the obvious cause of obesity. Since 1990, the percentage of obese adults has more than doubled in every single region of the world (see graph below). Overeating and obesity aren’t only limited to North America and Europe – it’s a global problem. Obesity is the root cause of several chronic diseases that kill most of us. It increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke, heart disease and some cancers. I’m not saying that we should all go on a diet but monitoring what we eat will prevent many diseases linked to obesity. Several campaigns have recommended cuts to junk foods urging us to eat more healthily.
But there aren’t enough campaigns that highlight large food portions as the cause of obesity – and of course, food waste. We’re vulnerable to carrying on eating despite being full. A study found that only children up to the age of three or four have the ability to stop eating once they are full. Five-year-olds however, can’t help eating more when they are given more food. These enormous food portions aren’t only making us overweight; they are also immensely wasteful.
Food is non-renewable
Food is not a renewable source. We don’t often think about the resources required to get our food on the table. There is something that keeps us and everything around us alive – and agriculture uses most of it. Water. More than two-thirds of the fresh water available to us is used in agriculture.
And by that account, we use over 7% of the available water to grow food that we eat unnecessarily. Saving water is amongst the most important global priorities. If we fail to do so, global water wars will break out sooner rather than later. When water conflicts do arise, none of us will hold ourselves accountable whilst enjoying our large meals. Perhaps I’m overly dramatic; perhaps I’m not. But all of us need to take collective responsibility to save our natural resources.
It’s not just about using too much water. Agriculture is also a significant contributor to air and water pollution. Agriculture generates nearly one-fourth of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Only electricity and heat production industry – that burns coals, natural gas and oil to generate electricity and heat – produces more greenhouse gas emission than agriculture.
More environment damage from agriculture comes from excessive production culture, which pretty much kills the soil. Therefore, to meet our increasing food demands, agriculture uses more land to produce the same amount. And new farmlands are usually made through deforestation. Getting the food to our plates generates yet more emissions for manufacturing, transportation and storage.
The bottom line is that food is essential, but we use tremendously amount of resources to produce it. Food is non-renewable; we don’t have enough resources to produce an infinite amount of food. We need to identify sustainable ways to produce food. Policymakers have a prominent role to identify sustainable agriculture practices and incentivise us to use food sustainably. But when it comes to looking after our food, we, the people, have the biggest responsibility. We need to start reducing food waste at every stage of the food supply chain. As it stands, controlling our diets will not only save our environment but make us healthier, or even save our lives. Win-win!