The tragedy of global food waste
April 11, 2015

According to figures released last year, a third of the food produced for human consumption in the world is wasted.

At the same time, it is estimated that nearly a billion people in the world are starving.

That’s a shocking comparison.

But it’s something that tends to disappear into the background for many of us that live in the land of plenty.

This, quite frankly, frightening gulf was recently brought into stark clarity for me when I was introduced to the wonder that is the Las Vegas buffet. Of course, I’ve been to buffet restaurants before – the ‘all you can eat’ Indian or Chinese establishments, where quality tends to give way to quantity on the list of priorities – but a buffet in Sin City was on another level.

The apparently never-ending feast is, quite literally, jaw-dropping. From fresh fruit to pizza; Asian dishes to seafood; pastries, desserts and ice-creams, the list is virtually endless. I went at breakfast time, and the chance to eat maple-glazed ham alongside Eggs Benedict, followed by a course of pot stickers and Korean pork buns; with a side of French toast, waffles and maple syrup, all rounded off with a plate of desserts, was the stuff of childish dreams.

Food as far as the eye can see at a Vegas buffet....
Food as far as the eye can see at a Vegas buffet….

The price is reasonable, the food quality pretty darn good, and the service wonderful, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that much of the attraction is volume. This is about having a lot of food, about gluttony for gluttony’s sake. And as much as I loved diving headfirst into that world and waxing lyrical about it here, it raised a serious issue. How much of that four-course breakfast did I actually need? And how much of that fantastic display of food was thrown away, tossed in the trash, ready for the next sumptuous feast to be brought out in just a few hours? While I raved about the choice and the veritable banquet – the tastes, textures and general experience – there was a part of me that felt slightly sullied, even self-loathing, that I had been drawn into such unnecessary greed.

In the developed world, where food is now so cheap, waste is a daily occurrence. When I was younger, if you tried to leave your dinner you’d regularly be told to think about the people who were starving in far-flung countries. As a child you wondered how it would directly help someone thousands of miles away if you finished it all (it’s not likely your parents were going to post your leftovers overseas to a starving child in Africa), but the point is far wider than that, and it’s demonstrated perfectly by the heaving serving stations in the Las Vegas buffet.

According to World Hunger, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that about 805 million of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2012-2014. Almost all of those people – 791 million – live in developing countries, representing 13.5%, of the population of developing counties. Last year, a report by a high level panel of experts on food security and nutrition advising the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation estimated that a third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted before it is eaten.

These figures are staggering, even more so when illustrated by a room full of food with the sole aim of encouraging people to eat as much as possible. Not as much as they need, not even as much as they want, but as much as they desperately, greedily, physically can pile into their mouths.

The amount of food wasted is staggering
The amount of food wasted is staggering

And with this unnecessary gluttony comes waste. It’s inevitable. You can guess how many people might come to your buffet, how much they might eat if they all stuff themselves to within an inch of their lives. But will they all do that? Probably not. So there you have it, piles and piles of wasted fruit, prawns, pizza, pork buns, and more.

I might have rather unfairly focused on the Vegas buffet, but it’s by no means the only culprit. This kind of waste is everywhere in the food world, from ridiculously large burgers sandwiched between two donuts, to food challenges and awe-inspiring ‘biggest meals ever’. For many of us in today’s world, the default setting is ‘get as much as you can’. We in the west live in the supersize world of food, where for most people bigger is better and excess is excellent. Even for those of us who don’t necessarily regularly put quantity at the top of our list of priorities, we are so blasé about food – its ready availability and relatively low cost – that we take waste for granted.

According to WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) the UK food sector produces 15 million tonnes of food waste, with food and drink accounting for 20% of the country’s CO2-eq emissions. A November 2013 report from the charity described a substantial reduction in the amount of household food and drink waste between 2007 and 2012, but its main message was how far there was to go. Despite a drive to reduce waste, when the report was published UK households were still throwing away 4.2 million tonnes of household food and drink annually – the equivalent of six meals a week for the average household.

Of course, there’s more to food waste than just us average consumers throwing stuff away – it’s an endemic problem throughout the industry, especially in the developed world, where high levels of wastage occur at every stage of the food production process. But to dismiss the problem as something for the industry to solve, or the “powers that be” to deal with, is no different from ignoring the fact that we all have a responsibility when it comes to global climate change. Or refusing to admit that watching apparently harmless pornography might have some connection to the darker worlds of trafficking and abuse.

These problems are for all of us to face, and to at least discuss.

Don’t get me wrong, I relished every second of my gluttonous visit to a Vegas buffet like the proverbial pig in sh*t. I was that kid in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where anything is possible and everything is scoffable. But shouldn’t we all be mindful of the fact that some people will never get the chance to go to that world? Actually, it’s so far beyond their comprehension that they don’t even dream of it.

The good news is the gulf between the haves and have-nots, the scoffers and the starving, is something we can change. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the hunger target of the Millennium Development Goal – of halving the proportion of undernourished people in developing countries by 2015 – is within reach. So it’s not a hopeless situation, not by any means.

But the only way we will even begin to address this issue is if we lift our heads out of the trough long enough to acknowledge there’s actually something wrong.


One thought on “The tragedy of global food waste

  1. A shocking comparison, indeed! In my opinion, reducing our food waste will lead to better management of other pressing problems such as greenhouse gas. Because they are connected – the less food we produce, the less gas will be spend for transportation! And only then those resources can be transfer to developing countries and those in need!

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