Photo courtesy of UNOPS

A new year usually brings hope and optimism but when we welcomed 2022, another worrisome issue had surfaced – the imminent threat of a food shortage. When the sudden fertilizer policy changes in 2021 interrupted the agricultural process in the country, many expected a lower harvest from the next growing season. However, at that time no one expected that there would be a currency shortage as well that hampers importation of goods including the essential food items. Now both issues have passed their predictive stage and become ground realities. In this context, the possibility of having a food shortage may not be a surprise although no one knows how severe it will get.

The signs of any shortage affect us psychologically as well as physically. Our fear for a food shortage is driven by the feeling that soon we may not be able to enjoy what we used to have in the same quantities or quality. Amid this psychological mess, what we forget is that our consumption in a normal year when food is abundant includes a huge margin for wastage. We waste about a third of our food every day, every year. There are different ways to put this wastage into perspective to understand its true gruesome picture. The food we wasted in 2021 was enough to feed another 10 million people. This also means that the food we produce, import and circulate within the country in a normal year is enough to feed the same population for another six months but it never happens thanks to the one third we waste between the farm and our dining table.

Food wastage is a global issue. The global average of food wastage is about 30 to 40%. It can even reach 50% in some countries. This wastage is translated into 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste each year which is estimated to be a $1 trillion loss according to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The data from FAO also tells us that almost half of the fruits and vegetables and about one third of the fish, seafood and grains are being wasted each year, on a global scale. The same for dairy products; meat and poultry is a little better and stands at 20%. Although the percentage of food wastage is a good indicator, it does not reveal the whole story on the amounts we waste. For that, you have to look at per capita wastage, which is quite different from one region to another. From the per capita perspective, the highest wastage is happening in Europe and the North Americas, which is close to 300 kg per person per year.  The lowest is reported in the South and Southeast Asia region and it is about 125 kg of food per person per year.

It is interesting to look at how and where this wastage happens. In research, food wastage is divided into two parts along its value chain. The wastage that happens in the early part of the value chain from the farm to the retailer is defined as Food Loss (FL). Note that the broader definition of farms here also includes animal farms, slaughterhouses and the fisheries industry. FL is the food that gets lost from its value chain due to various reasons before it becomes market ready. The wastage that happens once the food leaves the retailer, is defined as Food Waste (FW). This FW is the wastage that happens right in front of us, mostly between the grocery store and your home or other such places where the food gets finally consumed such as food vendors and restaurants. This FW is the food that is of good quality and suitable for consumption, but goes to waste because it is discarded either before or after it is left to spoil.

Let’s look at the food wastage in Sri Lanka with some of the limited statistics available. Based on a recent study conducted by the FAO and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), about 50% of the solid waste collected in Colombo is just FW. This 50% may be used as a rough estimate of FW for the whole country. How can this be true when you haven’t wasted more than a few bites of the food on your plate? It’s because there is much more beyond your plate that we don’t usually see. Many people throw away the leftovers from one meal, to have something fresh for the next meal. How much uncooked food is thrown away because of bad planning like buying more than necessary of perishable items such as fruits and vegetables? Most restaurants are not different from our own kitchens except for the much larger waste volume. If you go back one step in the food value chain to the grocery and market level, an enormous amount of food is wasted there too behind the scenes in the back of the building or in their warehouses.

FW is only the tip of the iceberg. The FL part of the wastage that happens further up in the food value chain is much larger and is about 10 times higher than the more visible FW part. This FL is the result of a number of reasons including the inefficiencies in production, processing, storage, and distribution stages in the food value chain. For example fruits, vegetables and grains that were harvested in error (too early or too late) and became unfit for consumption or even the good produce that gets destroyed during harvesting are losses that we don’t see. Vegetables, fruits and animal-based food can go bad while in storage if the storing conditions are sub-optimal. Another common example for FL is the damage caused by poor transportation conditions. When trucks are overloaded with bundles or sacks of fruits and vegetables, what is at the bottom not only lacks proper ventilation but is also subject to pressure from the load above. The results of this mismanagement are displayed as a pile of garbage at a wholesale market. About 30% of the fruits and vegetables are wasted for this reason at Dambulla wholesale market, the biggest facility in the country.

It makes no sense to scream about a food shortage while turning a blind eye to the enormous amounts we waste each year. This wastage has been woven into the fabric of the society to an extent that it has become acceptable. The current food crisis is an opportunity to address the food wastage issue. While it is not possible to bring food wastage down to zero, if we cut the wastage by half, the savings are sufficient to feed the country for three months.

What can we do to minimize food wastage? There are ways to cut down food wastage at home because it is caused by our behavior as consumers. There are many things we can do to tackle the problem such as proper planning. Stocking more food than necessary only to find later that part of it has been spoiled is one thing that should stop. We should not cook more than necessary. If there is leftover food, take measures to safely consume it later. Especially during festive times or weddings or other celebrations, we prepare more than necessary, thinking that having less is an embarrassment. The real embarrassment is having to throw away food in large quantities. This is particularly applicable to food vendors, restaurants and reception halls. To curtail the food wastage, Pakistan introduced a law to limit the number of dishes offered at a reception to six.

The FL part of the wastage needs interventions by the government. Use of stackable plastic or wooden crates for storing and transportation is one solution. Time sensitivity of freshness in vegetables and fruits should be a cause for concern. In many countries, this situation is tackled by promoting shopping for locally grown food, which cuts down the need for transportation and related damage and loss. The centralization of wholesale transactions to places such as Dambulla may be convenient but what about the resulting FL? Not everything would have to be shipped around the island from one or two places if there were more regional centers.

Seeing a food shortage on the horizon is a motivation to think about minimizing food wastage. Like many other issues, we may forget about it when the pressure is off and good times return but should we allow this wastage even if the times are prosperous? It is not only the food material that we lose through FL and FW; we also lose enormous amounts of energy and water because the food value chain consumes a lot of these two essentials. Based on the per capita wastage, the total amount of food we waste is about 2.75 million metric tonnes each year. According to FAO data, a metric tonne of food is worth about $770. This means that each year we throw away a little over $2 billion because we don’t care, think and plan. Reducing this wastage by 50% will save us $1 billion. While the numbers are rough estimates, they are powerful enough for you to see the true picture.