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Food waste statistics leave a bad taste

We should be ashamed that, globally every year, an area of land three times the size of Thailand is used to grow food that is simply thrown away

About 1.3 billion tonnes of food is lost and wasted globally every year, and one-third of all food produced, worth about US$1 trillion (Bt32 trillion), is lost or wasted in food production and consumption, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The agency says the amount of food lost and wasted each year is more than four times what would be needed to solve the world's hunger crisis. Just a quarter of the food wasted is enough to feed the 870 million people, it says.

Poor planning, lack of storage facilities, weak transportation systems, crop disease and parasites are the main causes of food being lost before it reaches consumers. And there is also a growing problem of waste on the part of supermarkets, restaurants and consumers. More and more food is being thrown away, and this trend seems to increase with greater urbanisation.

About 35 per cent of food is lost or wasted after harvest, according to Hiroyuki Konuma, the FAO's assistant director for Asia. "More effort is needed to raise global awareness of the critical issue of food losses and particularly post-harvest losses, as well as food waste, which is increasing," he says.

MS Swaminathan, a geneticist who helped shape India's "green revolution", is also worried about food waste. "Food waste is also a waste of natural resources, like land and water. Food losses and waste are becoming central to discussions on both food security and sustainable development."

Both experts were speaking in Bangkok on Tuesday at the launch of the FAO's Save Food Asia-Pacific campaign.

The World Resources Institute estimates that 198 million hectares - which is more than three times the size of Thailand - is used to produce food that is lost or wasted each year. And 173 billion cubic metres of water is used to grow lost or wasted food, representing 24 per cent of all water used for agriculture.

These figures are shocking. To even begin to put these losses into reverse, the effort must start with each and every one of us.

Among farmers, educational and infrastructure measures must be supported to improve harvesting techniques and storage facilities and conditions in order to reduce as much as possible the loss of food before it reaches markets and consumers.

Food can also be wasted due to overly stringent quality standards, which reject food items not perfect in shape or appearance even though they are still edible.

Perhaps most importantly, we as individual consumers need to change the behaviour that leads to food waste. The FAO advises us to plan our meals more carefully, make shopping lists and avoid impulse buying, as well as staying alert to "marketing tricks that lead you to buy more food than you need". Another good idea is to buy fruit or vegetables that would otherwise be thrown out because their size, shape or colour isn't "perfect".

In some developed countries like the United States, there are groups of "freegans" who adopt an anti-consumerist lifestyle and reclaim and eat food that's been discarded. Average consumers don't need to go that far, but they should be aware there are many people who do not allow food to be wasted, and take a lesson from that. By the same token, there are many more people whose lives would be improved immeasurably if they had access to the food that's thrown away by those more fortunate.


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