World wastes 1.3b tons of food annually

Waste food  photo: Reuters

UN Food and Agriculture Organization: One third of the food produced is thrown away.

Large shiny red apples, perfectly straight bumpless carrots, and perfectly round tomatoes are only some of the uncompromising beauty standards we force on fruits and vegetables. This cosmetic selection is one of the factors responsible for the astronomical worldwide waste of food. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we "lose" 1.3 billion tons of food each year, a third of what is produced, with an aggregate value of $990 billion.

Yes, we throw away almost a trillion dollars worth of food a year, most of which is perfectly edible. This happens with all types of food. Almost half of all the potatoes, beets, and carrot; 45% of fruits and vegetables; 35% of tuna, salmon, and other marine food; 30% of other fish; 22% of meat; and 17% of the dairy products produced go to waste.

If this sounds unlikely to you, think about another figure: if we save only a quarter of the amount of food lost in the production, storage, transportation, and consumption, we will be able to feed over 800 million people and solve, like beauty queens, the problem of global hunger.

At the top: The developed countries

Most of the loss and waste obviously takes place in the developed countries. 95-115 kilograms of food per capita is wasted in the developed countries each year for reasons involving consumer behavior and preference, such as an emphasis on appearance, the affluent society, and over-consumption. In the US, it is estimated that each person throws away 600 calories of fiber and vitamin-rich food a day, whether at home, through excessively large restaurant portions, or wasteful hotel buffets.

In Israel, also, most of the loss (80%) takes place at the consumption stage. According to a report by the National Food Bank of Israel (Leket Israel), cast away food totaled 2.4 million tons, worth NIS 19.5 billion, in 2016. In the developing countries, on the other hand, only 6-11 kilograms of food per capita is wasted. Here, the loss takes place mainly in the earlier stages of production as a result of monetary, management, and technical constraints involving harvesting techniques and the quality of storage and refrigeration facilities, leading to mold, infestation by insects and rodents, heat damage, crushing in crates, and rotting in containers.

Food for 300 million people wasted

The UN calculates that the food lost or wasted each year in the Latin America could feed 300 million people, the food lost in Europe could feed 200 million people, and the food from Africa could feed 300 million people. That this waste is socially, morally, and even economically unacceptable is indisputable, but it is also unforgivable for environmental reasons.

All the food thrown away breaks down and releases 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases. The FAO says that this accounts for 7% of total greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the enormous quantities of water used to grow the wasted food are enough to fill Lake Geneva, one of the largest lakes in Europe, three times over. All of this wasted food also takes up a lot of space; were we to put all this space together, we would get the second largest country in the world.

This waste of food cannot be called a small problem, but fortunately, it is an almost completely solvable one. While Israel is lagging behind, without any legislation or national plan for dealing with the problem, many countries around the world have adopted a zero tolerance policy towards lost and wasted food. There are also many private companies showing a similar commitment and taking action on their own independent level.

The most advanced country in legislation is France, where a series of laws and regulations has been enacted in recent years to encourage reduction in food wastage, including fines for deviating from waste quotas, a ban on supermarkets throwing away food, and a legal obligation to donate surplus food to charity. In South Korea, legislation reaches the consumers' doorstep; they must pay for the waste that they produce in proportion to the number of tenants in a building, just like water consumption in Israel. Various chains have also begun selling "ugly" vegetables at a substantial discount.

A similar process is taking place in the UK, which started with the supermarkets. The Waitrose chain, for example, has begun offering fruits and vegetables labeled as "a little less than perfect" at a reduced price. Asda is offering a similar bargain, labeled "crazy vegetables," and Tesco has announced that it will eliminate food wasting by March this year in all of its 2,654 stores around the UK.

Incidentally, almost all of the supermarket chains use special technology to deal with surplus food, manage inventory, and buy and sell surplus produce from the suppliers. At the institutional level, the UK has adopted a multi-year plan for reducing food waste by 20% over the next decade.

Programs for reducing waste around the world

In May 2017, Australia officially joined the battle for the first time by declaring a national program to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030, mainly through government support for food saving organizations. Quick to follow was Denmark, which launched a government subsidy program for organizations trying to solve the food waste problem in June 2017. Denmark has managed to reduce food waste by 25% in five years without any government support, and is regarded as the leader in this endeavor, thanks to a single activist woman, Selina Juul, who persuaded the supermarket chains to change their discount strategy from a quantity-based one to a strategy based on individual items. This measure reduced waste in bananas by 90%, for example, thereby saving 700 tons of waste a year.

Not to be outdone, neighboring Norway declared a month later the same target as Australia: a 50% reduction in waste by 2030, although concrete measures have not yet been specified, with a call to food companies to show innovation and creativity in order to meet the targets. The US set a similar target, while various food giants announced that they would simplify expiry-date labelling in order to prevent confusion and food waste.

The chosen date of 2030 is not random, incidentally: the UN first set this target and year, and called on countries to commit themselves to a roadmap for achieving it.

All of these measures, however, are at the national and corporate level. At the consumption level, there is still a long way to go. How many times have you cut apart a bunch of bananas in order to take only the four nice ones, only to throw away two of them two days later, because they turned out to be rotten? Consumer involvement in the issue of food loss and waste is still poor. Substantial help for consumers in changing their habits and thinking differently about food, saving money, and making the change sustainable is needed.

Leket Israel CEO: Israel is far behind in this problem

"Every week, I hear about new breakthrough initiatives in the world for reducing food waste and encouraging food saving, both by governments and by NGOs: regulations, explanatory campaigns, databases collected by the government, applications, incentives for food businesses and farmers, and so forth. By all of these criteria, Israel is far behind," says Leket Israel CEO Gidi Kroch.

"The change has to come from below," says Kroch, "from the public of the affluent society, which buys large quantities of food, heaps a lot of food on its plate in a hotel, and does not take into account the fact that half of the food will end up in the garbage. I believe that awareness will eventually penetrate, and that people will push the government to act, because there has to be government intervention here."

Leket Israel has been operating in Israel for 15 years, collecting and saving food for the needy. The organization was founded in 2003 in order to supply the growing need for food among a substantial proportion of the population on the one hand and solve the problem of large-scale food waste on the other. Joseph Gitler, who specializes in saving surplus food in Israel, founded the organization. At present, Leket is the only organization in Israel whose sole business is saving food for those who need it.

The organization collects surplus food every day: fruit and vegetables donated by farmers; cooked meals from hotels, event halls, IDF bases; and so forth.

As part of its activity, Leket Israel has initiated and has been promoting a bill to encourage saving surplus food. The bill was first submitted to the Knesset three years ago by MKs Uri Maklev and Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), Yehiel Hilik Bar (Zionist Union), and Orly Levi-Abekasis (independent MK).

Kroch explains, "The bill passed its preliminary reading in March 2016, but the coalition has not pushed for it since. Were there such a law in Israel, it would triple the number of donated meals saved from various suppliers, who have refrained from donating up until now because they are afraid of lawsuits, and would reduce nutritional insecurity in Israel.

"More also needs to be done in private initiatives, too. A startup nation like ours can certainly come up with apps for connecting people with food surpluses with NGOs. Encouraging innovation through competitions and prizes is likely to make people interested in the idea. People must realize that saving surplus food has an enormous effect on the lives and livelihoods of innumerable other people, including suppliers, farmers, food manufacturers, and of course the needy, and immediate action is therefore necessary in this area."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - - on February 11, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

Waste food  photo: Reuters
Waste food photo: Reuters
Michal Raz-Chaimovich and Ela Levi-Weinrib
Twitter Facebook Linkedin RSS Newsletters גלובס Israel Business Conference 2018