Each year, an estimated one third of all food produced – an astonishing 1.3 billion tonnes, worth around US$1 trillion (Bt29.9 trillion) – ends up rotting in the bins of consumers and retailers or spoiling due to poor transportation and harvesting practices.
Aside from the moral implications of such wastage in a world where almost 900 million people go hungry every day, unconsumed food wastes both the energy put into growing it and the fuel spent on transporting produce across vast distances.
Added to this, significant amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas methane emanate from food decomposing on landfills, while livestock and forests cleared for food production contribute to global warming – for example, agriculture and land-use changes like deforestation account for over 30 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.
World Environment Day on June 5, whose global host is the government and people of Mongolia, is focused on the new UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) campaign “Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint”, which is aimed at slashing this wastage.
Mongolia is one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, and is aiming to ensure this growth goes hand in hand with a green economy and civilisation. It neither wastes nor loses food at any significant level, but the nomadic life of many of its people does offer some ancient answers to the modern-day challenge of food waste.
As part of the celebrations, UNEP asked people to submit examples of traditional ways in which food is preserved. While some of the delicacies may not tickle the taste buds of the uninitiated, and are not intended to be replicated in countries adhering to other cultures, they demonstrate how humanity once valued food far more than it does today.
They also highlight the irony that, in an era when technology makes it ever easier to store food for longer, most people make less effort to conserve food and thus waste money – all the more surprising considering the financial crisis that has forced many to tighten their belts, and recent reports that world food prices are at a 40-year high.
“Reducing food waste and loss is an economic, ethical and environmental challenge that links to some of the greatest challenges of today, from hunger and nutrition to climate change, deforestation and land degradation,” said UN under-secretary-general and UNEP executive director, Achim Steiner. “One of the ways everyone can contribute to these twin challenges is by looking at how less-wasteful cultures place value on every morsel of food, and considering how to emulate them.”
The ways that indigenous peoples create preserved dishes are as many and varied as the cultures and food sources that form the basis of the recipes.
Mongolian general Genghis Khan and his troops utilised a traditional food called borts to gallop across Asia without depending on elaborate supply chains. Borts is basically concentrated beef equal to the protein of an entire cow condensed and ground down to the size of a human fist. This remarkable method of food preservation, without refrigeration, produced a meal equivalent to several steaks when the protein was shaved into hot water to make soup.
Not too far away, the Turkish horsemen of Central Asia had their own solution. According to the Turkish Cultural Foundation, they would preserve meat by placing it in pockets on their saddles to be compressed by their legs as they rode. This meat was a director ancestor of pastirma, a term which means “being pressed” in Turkish, and is also believed to be the origin of the Italian pastrami.
Further in the frozen north, the Inuit from Greenland dine on a dish called kiviak – a traditional wintertime food made from auks, small birds that bear a superficial resemblance to penguins. Hundreds of whole birds are wrapped in a seal skin, which then has the air removed before being sewn up. The skin is placed in the permafrost under a stone to help keep the air out. The birds then ferment for around seven months before they are dug up and eaten, often at celebrations.
Vegetarians need not despair, for there are plenty of ways to preserve non-meat dishes. In many countries of South America, a freeze-dried potato delicacy known as chuzo, which pre-dates the Inca Empire, is widely eaten. The potatoes are alternately exposed to the freezing night air and hot daytime sun for five days, being trampled to squeeze out all moisture. Chuzo can last for months or years.
In Nigeria and several other western African countries, a dry granular foodstuff called garri is produced from cassava tubers that are peeled, washed and grated. The resultant mash is placed in a porous bag and allowed to ferment as weights press out the water. Finally it is sieved and roasted for long-term storage.
There are so many more dishes to choose from: ghee, a type of butter that needs no refrigeration, milk powders and curds, biltong and other dried meats, pickles, jams, sauerkraut and dozens more.
In industrialised regions, almost half of the total food squandered, around 300 million tonnes annually, occurs because producers, retailers and consumers discard food that is still fit for consumption – more than the net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa and enough to feed the world’s hungry.
These figures demonstrate just how much room there is for individual consumers to take the lead from their forebears and change the way they buy, store and consume food.
To find out more and contribute methods of preservation from your own culture, visit http://www.unep.org/wed/food-preservation.
Nick Nuttall is UNEP director of Communications.
Lucita Jasmin is head of Special Events, UNEP Newsdesk (Nairobi).