The world is full of wasted food while millions are still starving

As much as half of all the food produced in the world ends up being thrown away. Sheena Hastings reports.

SOME of the food we buy we may as well throw straight in the bin. Our wastefulness is epic and caused by poor infrastructure and storage facilities, over-strict sell-by dates, “buy one, get one free” offers, and consumer fussiness, according to new research.

Each year countries around the world produce around four billion tonnes of food, but up to half of it – as much as to two billion tonnes, never gets eaten, says the Institution of Mechanical Engineers report Global Food; Waste Not, Want Not.

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In the UK ,up to 30 per cent of vegetable crops are not harvested because their physical appearance fails to meet the exacting demands of consumers. Half the food purchased in Europe and the US is thrown away after it is bought.

Vast quantities of water are also wasted in global food production, says the report, with 550 billion cubic metres of water used to grow crops that never reach the consumer. Producing one kilogram of meat is also said to take 20 to 50 times more water than the same weight of vegetables.

The demand for water in food production could reach 10 to 13 trillion cubic metres a year by 2050 – up to 3.5 times greater than the total amount of fresh water used by humans today – raising the spectre of dangerous water shortages.

Dr Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the IME, said: “This is food that could be used to feed the world’s growing population as well as those in hunger today. It is also an unnecessary waste of the land, water and energy resources.

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“The reasons for this situation range from poor engineering and agricultural practices, inadequate transport and storage infrastructure through to supermarkets demanding cosmetically perfect foodstuffs and encouraging consumers to overbuy.

“Engineers have a crucial role to play by developing more efficient ways of growing, transporting and storing foods. But... governments, development agencies and organisations like the UN must work together to help change people’s mindsets on waste and discourage wasteful practices by farmers, food producers, supermarkets and consumers.”

Professor Andy Challinor, of Leeds University’s School of Earth and Environment, says that in developing countries in the tropics, where there are less sophisticated systems in place,
 a lot of waste happens between the field and the shop from 
simple loss of grain falling off open trucks when it’s moved or crops being dried on mats by the side of the road and being blown away and/or contaminated by traffic.

“Unlike developing countries, we have more resources to put into the efficient harvesting, transport and distribution. However, in developing countries you see far less waste of food by families.”

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Prof Challinor’s colleague Dr Louise Ellis, head of environmental sustainability at the university, believes the food industry, retailers and government should help consumers to unerstand the resources that go into the food we eat.

“Communicating the footprint of an item of food is in everyone’s interests,” she says. “Information such as how many cups of water it takes to grow a piece of fruit, say, would help families to change habits and waste less. More education about what to do with food as well as sharing of best practice from other industries would also help us to see less waste, including energy efficiency.”

John Rick, South and West Yorkshire manager of the charity FareShare, which connects food industry surpluses to people who need food, handling 3,600 tonnes of food a year nationally to feed 36,500 people every day, says: “There’s evidence that people know less about what to do with food these days. More effort should go into helping people to use the food they buy better.”

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