Inglorious food

Reading Time: 2 minutes

by Jesmond Saliba

Since at least classical antiquity, civilizations have been longing for an abundance of food. The symbol of the cornucopia was handed down from Greek god to French monarchy to the Peruvian coat of arms. The ‘Horn of Plenty’ represents a deep-seated human hope for assured sustenance. 

Hope turned into reality in the last century and by 2011 it was estimated that the world was producing as much as one-third more food than people could consume. 

Food waste is a huge issue as households and eateries throw out half-eaten meals and retailers discard products that have a lower sales value. Global data suggests that almost one billion metric tons of food waste were generated in 2019, with over 60 per cent of it produced by households. 

But the problem with spoilt foods starts much earlier in the production chain, and farms, fishing fleets, manufacturing plants, and exporters report even greater food loss. Market pressures sometimes lead producers to throw food away or leave it unharvested. Although many countries have measures in place to recover over-production and donate it to relief programmes, added expenses linked to processing and transportation rarely make the system cost-effective. 

Loss of food is not only a challenge affecting high-income countries. Pakistan discards around a third of its tangerines, the same share of beans thrown away in Guyana and shallots in Sweden. Food waste created by households, likewise, is a worldwide phenomenon. 

Squandered produce is more than a pile of excess crops left to rot. The food process, from primary production through to the final stages requires great amounts of water and energy. 

The Food and Agriculture Organisation calculated that, on a global scale, around 36 exajoules of energy goes into foods that are left to waste every year. Put into perspective, that makes six per cent of the annual primary energy consumption by the world’s population. 

Foods are also water-intensive. A hamburger will consume some 2,000 litres of water until it is plated. A plant-based alternative requires around 75 per cent less; a considerable volume, nevertheless. 

In the longer term, excessive food production is harming the planet’s freshwater supply and generating energy wastage, a cycle that threatens the natural systems that grow our food in the first place. 

The irony of abundance is that, left unchecked, it may usher in an age of scarcity. 

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