A global initiative to save food
Sep 18 2013
The zero hunger challenge launched in 2012 by the secretary general of the United Nations during the Rio conference integrates a zero-food-loss-and-waste challenge and a 100 per cent-sustainable-food-systems challenge. For those who are working on food security issues for a long time, the need for eliminating food losses and waste is an old topic. Why then, is there such widespread interest now? In my view, there are several reasons.
First, since the food price crisis in 2008, the whole world has realised that there are still almost 800 million hungry and 2 billion malnourished people, many of them being pregnant women. Maternal and foetal undernutrition leads to the new-born child having a low birth weight, who may suffer from several handicaps in later life, including impaired cognitive ability.
With the onset of the climate change era, there are concerns regarding our capacity to sustain a growing demand for food, driven by population and income growth, and by a shift towards diets richer in animal products. The FAO estimates that food production will have to increase by 60 per cent towards 2050 to satisfy the growing demand. According to these estimates, there will still be 450 million hungry in 2050, too poor to be part of the demand. Concerns for the capacity of food systems to produce enough are grounded on the realisation that they rely on natural resources, which are now used in an increasingly unsustainable way.
Food waste is also a waste of natural resources such as land and water. To a great extent, food losses and waste are symbolic of the inefficiencies of food systems. All these reasons explain why food losses and waste are becoming so central to discussions on both food security and sustainable development. Everybody agrees on the importance of the issue and on the need to do something urgently about it. However, action requires a better understanding of food losses and waste, of their causes, and of trends affecting them, from a scientific and social viewpoint.
Definitions of food losses and waste are still a matter of debate. The main approach, and for which data is easily available, refers to the “loss and waste of food measured along the food chain, intended as the edible part of produce initially meant for human consumption. In practice, food losses and waste are often measured by comparison of actual sales to the original marketing volume.”
Another definition says, “Food waste or loss is measured only for products that are directed to human consumption, excluding feed and parts of products which are not edible.” As per this definition, food losses or waste are the masses of food lost or wasted as part of food chains leading to “edible products going to human consumption”. Little is, thus, known about the final use of discarded produce. Food discarded from the food value chain is counted as a loss, whatever its final use, even if it is used as animal feed or energy feed or sometimes for human consumption. In my view, the concept of waste should cover every part of the biomass. To illustrate this, I am helping to setup, on behalf of the government, a Rice BioPark at Nay Pi Taw in Myanmar.
In developed countries, food waste is a more recent topic of interest, often driven by environmental concerns and particularly by the ethical need to reduce the volume of waste. This explains why some studies, particularly in Europe, refer to all food related waste, including non-edible parts, as “avoidable waste”. Understanding and reducing food losses and waste require the mobilisation of a diverse range of disciplines ranging from business approaches, behavioural economics, and socio-psychology. The waste and resources action programme (WRAP) of the UK, is a leader in this field with some successful actions at retail and consumer levels.
Inadequate drying of grains before storage could lead to infection with aspergillus and consequently development of mycotoxins in food. Aflatoxins constitute a serious threat to food safety. The Codex alimentarius standards of food safety are not known in rural areas, both among farmers and consumers. Hence, a quality literacy movement (QLM) is urgently needed. The Codex standards for food safety should be translated into local languages. Computer aided village knowledge centres should be used for familiarising farm families with the safety aspects of food production and consumption. Industrialised countries should cut down in waste at the consumption level, while developing countries should pay greater attention to reducing food losses and waste at the production and post-harvest management stages.
A strategy for eliminating food losses and waste should involve education, social mobilisation and regulation. Education and social mobilisation can be achieved by training a cadre of community hunger fighters (CHF). Such CHFs should be well trained in the science and art of eliminating wastes at both the production and post-harvest management end of the food system. By minimising food losses and waste, food security, health and income security, would become vastly strengthened. This is the pathway for achieving the goals of FAO’s Save Food Initiative. This is also the pathway for making the recently introduced National Food Security Act 2013 an effective social protection measure against poverty induced endemic hunger.
(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)