Food Doubly Wasted

October 4, 2013

By Joanna Mackenzie

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), almost one-third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted. That’s about 1.3 billion tons of wasted food per year.

This staggering number, in developing countries, is the result of multiple deficiencies in infrastructure, leading to food spoilage during post-production harvesting, storage and transportation.

In contrast, in developed countries food is wasted due to producers’ and retailers’ decision to discard surpluses or products that do not meet quality, weight and appearance norms, as well as consumers’ behavior.

The shear fact that one-third of the world’s food production is wasted, while one-eighth of the population cannot access even 1,800 calories per capita per day, is morally troubling, to say the least.

Some would argue that addressing food wastage is a matter of great moral urgency because it contributes to the problem of individuals’ unfulfilled right to food.

Others would simply claim that a global food system that allows such astonishing amount of food waste to occur is fundamentally inefficient and can be morally criticized for that reason.

But the moral criticism of food waste goes beyond the legitimate concern for feeding the world’s population. Indeed, food waste undermines human wellbeing and violates our obligations to future generations through its effects on climate change, water use, and land use.

These are the problems the FAO’s Food Wastage Footprint Impacts on Natural Resources Report released in September systematically analyzes for the first time on a global scale — taking into account the entire food supply chain from production to consumption. Here are some of the report’s most significant findings:

  • If total green house gas emissions associated with global food wastage were incorporated into a list of greenhouse gas emissions by countries, food wastage would fall in 3rd place, just behind China and the USA.
  • The water required to grow all the food that is wasted is equivalent to the entire annual output of the Volga River or three times the volume of Lake Geneva, particularly due to fruit wastage.
  • Approximately 30% of the world’s agricultural land is used to grow food that is ultimately wasted, essentially for the production of dairy, meat and eggs.
  • Food wastage from agricultural production occurs at similar levels everywhere, but food wastage at the consumption level is much higher in middle and high income countries than in low income countries.
  • Two-thirds of food wastage does not occur at the agricultural production phase of the food supply chain.

Why is the impact of food waste on natural resources particularly problematic from an ethical standpoint? Most types of agricultural production generate negative externalities, but, food wasted is doubly wasted. The loss of natural resources due to food waste is not offset by any benefit to society. Food discarded or spoiled does not feed empty bellies and results in economic loss, undermining the livelihood of many individuals and families along the food supply chain.

Joanna Mackenzie is a Registered Dietitian and Research Assistant for the Global Food Ethics Project at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.  She is also working towards obtaining an MSPH in Health Education and Communication from the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She received a B.S. in Nutrition Science from Russell Sage College in 2010.  Prior to coming to Hopkins, Joanna was a Public Health Nutritionist for the New York State Child and Adult Care Food Program. Previous work included using nutrition interventions to enhance the quality of life of HIV/AIDS populations in upstate New York.

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Global Food Ethics
Joanna Mackenzie

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