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Message to hungry SE Asia: Waste Not, Want Not

A worker pushes a barrow at a rice stockpile in Bangkok.

A worker pushes a barrow at a rice stockpile in Bangkok.

'Save Food Asia-Pacific' and 'Zero Hunger Challenge' campaigns call attention to the region's 536 million undernourished

Finish your plate, before you're excused." At family dinner tables like mine in Toronto's salubrious suburbs of the 1970s, it was a non-negotiable offer. Though problematic for picky childhood eaters like me, mom's mealtime rule imparted a deep, lasting lesson - food is precious and there's no excuse for letting it go to waste.

Unfortunately, though, whether we reside in the advanced global North, middle income countries, or the least developed world, humankind collectively loses and wastes the very thing it needs to exist at a staggering rate. It begins at harvest time, and continues across the food production chain to food processors, distributors, retailers, restaurants and consumers.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), each year 1.3 billion tonnes of food, equal to one-third of all food produced for human consumption, is never eaten. More troubling is the fact that even though more than enough food is produced to feed the world's 7 billion-plus people - one person in eight does not get enough to eat.

"Close to 900 million people will go to bed hungry," famed Indian crop geneticist Dr MS Swaminathan told a high level conference in Bangkok last year. "But the food we waste and lose could help meet the nutritional needs of over 3 billion people."

In fact, a UN Food agencies report confirms that 842 million people on earth suffer from chronic hunger, which is defined as not getting enough food to lead an active and healthy life. The Asia-Pacific region alone is home to 536 million deprived of nutritional value, or nearly two-thirds of the planet's undernourished.

Such metrics are tough to swallow, particularly for Swaminathan, who currently holds the Unesco Chair in Ecotechnology. Widely lauded as the father of his country's "Green Revolution", Swaminathan believes today's food losses and waste are symbolic of the inefficiencies of current food systems, and eliminating both is central to achieving global food security.

Ending hunger is a key global development imperative, says the scientist who had a direct hand in feeding millions of his countrymen when he introduced high-yield varieties of rice and wheat to India's rural masses in the 1960s.

Today, Swaminathan lends his support to a pair of UN efforts focused on eradicating the problem. Indeed, at a high level international meeting on family farming and small-holder farmers in Asia and the Pacific held in Chennai, India on August 10, Swaminathan presented his "Chennai Declaration" - which is said to be "a new deal" for small family farms. "It recognises the important role played by family farmers and small-holder farmers in ensuring food security, and their need for better support, protection and empowerment," the FAO said, in a news release.

"Food waste is also a waste of finite natural resources like land and water," Swaminathan reminds. The FAO underscores the point by noting that 28 per cent of the world's farmland actually grows food that ends up soiling in fields or rotting in garbage dumpsters. Digging even deeper, waste food is also estimated to make up 6-10 per cent of all greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Just imagine possessing US$750 billion-worth of gold bullion, and then throwing it all away. Well, that's the yearly monetary value the UN food agency puts on food never eaten by anyone.

But thankfully, things are changing. Taking the lead in Europe, in May this year Belgium passed a law requiring food industries to donate unsold but still consumable food to charities. Legislators in France are now following suit, with proposals on the books that would require supermarkets to do the same.

Back in Asia-Pacific, few would be surprised that the prevalence of undernourished people in a least developed country like Laos is a very high 26 per cent, or that India, despite its tangible economic strides, is still home to 213 million hungry people. Yet it might raise eyebrows in Bangkok to learn that four million Thais, citizens of a food exporting powerhouse, are deemed undernourished. Such hunger amid plenty is a conundrum the United Nations and a growing number of public and private sector partners vow to eliminate.

Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO assistant director-general and regional representative for Asia and the Pacific, says if the food wasted or lost globally could be reduced by just one quarter, it would be sufficient to feed the hundreds of millions suffering from chronic hunger.

The FAO-led "Save Food Asia-Pacific" campaign launched last year in cooperation with Dr Prabhat Kumar of Thailand's Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) and stakeholders from 21 countries is now raising awareness about the high levels of food losses - particularly post-harvest losses - and the growing problem of food waste in the region, Konuma says.

It outlines specific actions countries in the region can take to save food from "farm to table" by limiting post-harvest losses and consumer waste, Konuma notes. The campaign defines "loss" as food which does not make it to the market from harvest and "waste" as food thrown away by consumers, restaurants, food retailers and supermarkets.

Unlike wealthy Europe, North America, and affluent parts of Asia where food discarded by consumers is the primary culprit, approximately 35 per cent of all food in the Asia-Pacific is lost between harvest and distribution. In fact, in South and Southeast Asia 87 per cent of the total 414 calories lost or wasted per person per day (out of a recommended 2000 needed for sustaining one's health) is due to leaky production, storage and transportation. Moreover, half the fruits and vegetables and up to 20 per cent of grains produced never reach the tables of people in the region, the FAO says.

Adding sizeable momentum to the FAO drive is the "Zero Hunger Challenge" which was first proposed by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil.

"It's a post-Millennium Development Goals agenda to end global hunger in our lifetime," says Clovis Freire, Economic Affairs officer, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP).

The MDG target of halving the percentage of the world's people suffering from hunger - from the figure of 23 per cent in 1990-1992 - by 2015 is within reach, claims Freire, who adds: "All partners need to scale up their efforts to eradicate hunger."

Konuma, who also chairs the UN regional thematic working group on poverty and hunger, points out that while gains have been made in decreasing hunger in many countries across the region, the real goal is to eradicate hunger in the remaining 12 per cent of the region's vulnerable population.

Yumiko Yamamoto, a Bangkok-based United Nations Development Programme specialist, stresses that 60 per cent of the undernourished are women or girls, and persistent gender inequalities remain in Asia-Pacific. Though the continent rises, more than 40 per cent of children in several countries remain stunted, she says.

At the Chennai meeting, Konuma informed that Timor-Leste has now formed a Zero Hunger Challenge national committee to direct and oversee activities, and has allocated 10 per cent of its national budget for the effort. India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Vietnam have also expressed strong interest in launching their own national campaigns.

For Swaminathan, the ZHC can be a powerful global movement to combat poverty. It holds that ending hunger will require that people have universal access to adequate food all year round. It calls for all food systems to be sustainable and for a 100 per cent increase in smallholder productivity and income. Its goal is to achieve zero stunted children of less than two years of age, and zero loss or waste of food across the globe.

Overall, it is imperative that industrialised countries cut down on waste at the consumption level, while developing countries must pay greater attention to reducing food losses and waste at the production and post-harvest management stages, Swaminathan said.

"There is no time to waste to stop wasting food," urges the man named as one of the twenty most influential Asians of the 20th Century by Time magazine. "The threats to human food security are just too great."

Shawn Kelly is senior media specialist at the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand.






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