How do we manage the huge amounts of food we throw away?
The world produces about 4 billion tons of food a year (about 6 billion calories). As much as a third of it is not used and thus huge food waste and loss occur.
There are no reliable data for Serbia, but it is certain that 30-50% of household waste is various organic waste, which includes food waste.
Important definitions and terms
Food loss is food that spoils, i.e. food whose quality is significantly reduced due to the action of various factors and which ultimately does not reach the final consumer. Losses most often occur in production (e.g. outdated agro-technical measures), storage process (e.g. insufficient equipment with refrigerators), processing, and distribution channels. Due to underdeveloped technology and poor infrastructure, food losses are typical of less developed countries.
Food waste is food that meets quality and is suitable for eating but is thrown away consciously. This type of waste is typical at higher levels of the supply chain – in markets and at end consumers, and is typical of developed countries. The most common causes of waste are inadequate procurement, as well as consumer confusion about how to display food use deadlines.
Where does the environmental problem occur?
Food losses and waste are multiple environmental problems. First, the deterioration of food results in the loss of a large part of the total energy invested, invested in all phases of food production – primary agricultural production, storage, transport, packaging, use. Given that food production is largely based on the use of fossil fuels whose combustion accelerates climate change, any food loss and waste can significantly contribute to the acceleration of climate change.
According to the EU data, food consumption results in the average EU citizen emitting almost 3,000 kg of CO2eq per year. In the graph below, we can see how many kilograms of carbon dioxide are emitted at all key stages in the process of consuming food.
As we can see in the graph, most of the emissions with harmful effects occur in the primary agricultural production itself (as much as 1,996 kg), as well as in the production phase (402 kg). If emissions from the distribution and packaging process are added to that, we can conclude that more than 90% of gases are emitted practically before the consumption of food.
As for other environmental problems with food waste and loss, organic waste in landfills through the decomposition process releases various gases, including methane, the most potent greenhouse gas. This further affects the acceleration of climate change.
Also, landfilled food waste can easily pollute surface and groundwater, especially in unsanitary landfills, which are the most common in Serbia. This means that many organisms in aquatic ecosystems can be endangered, and drinking water sources can also be polluted.
Finally, due to population growth and eating habits in the coming decades, it is projected that the world will need as much as 60% extra calories per year by 2050 to meet all needs. Due to this trend, if we do not solve the problem of throwing and losing food in time, all the mentioned environmental problems will be further multiplied.
Potential solutions for a green agreement on this topic would be:
- Education on composting organic waste in households and companies,
- Better management of food stocks in retail chains, restaurants, and households,
- Cooperation between food banks and retail chains and distributors,
- Improving the legal framework in the field of waste management,
- Creating a stimulating environment for all participants in the process,
- Systematic collection of food and oil residues from restaurants,
- Organizing the market of biomass and organic waste,
- Construction of industrial composters and small biogas plants,
- Greater support to the scientific community for finding innovative solutions for the use of food waste.
Finally, an example of an innovative solution that overcomes food waste and losses – the production of craft beer from discarded toast:
More on this topic can also be found in an article I wrote last year – Food losses and waste – a global environmental problem.