If you want to know how much food the world wastes, the internet is your friend.
It can tell you about the farm in the United States that dumps at least a quarter of its potatoes for being too big, too small, too ugly or the “wrong” colour. Or about how food waste is responsible for 8% of all pollution.
Staying in the US, because it is a well-monitored microcosm of a global problem, as well as home to the world’s biggest garbage mountain, food manufacturers generate 55 000 tonnes of waste per day by trimming off edible skin, fat, crusts and peels.
Imagine being aboard the International Space Station and watching trillions of dollars being sucked into orbit every year by a sinister alien invader seeking to break the back of Earth’s economy: that’s what food waste does.
Even in Africa, home to many of the world’s hungriest people, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says the amount of food wasted could feed an additional 300 million people.
Nearly 800 million people have insufficient food to lead a healthy, active life, according to the Food Aid Foundation. Put another way, food wasted in the US alone would provide every hungry mouth in the world with 1.25kg of nutrition every day.
We’ve just marked World Food Day for the 39th time, which is odd because we don’t have a food crisis. We have a food waste crisis, created and sustained by the same commercial interests that have simultaneously delivered an obesity emergency concealed inside their hollow calories.
A change of course is overdue, and the remarkable thing about the inflexion point we have reached is that with a little imagination, everyone can win – fat people, hungry people, farmers, manufacturers, retailers, animals and even the planet.
In developed countries, we’re seeing a willingness to change at the “fork” end of the food chain. Consumers are responding positively to public awareness campaigns about the need to cut waste, specialist shops are proudly selling “imperfect produce”, local authorities are making it easier for organic matter to reach composting facilities.
Closer to the “field” end of the chain, things don’t look quite as rosy. Skins and seeds – often the most nutritious parts of a plant – are still routinely discarded; squeezing and skimming – technologies that haven’t fundamentally changed since the early days of food and beverage mass production – are still fuelling the waste mountain; food manufacturers turn up their noses at the protein-packed “fifth quarter” of an animal carcass.
It’s not because we lack the know-how to do things differently. The Dynamic Cellular Disruption technology invented by Green Cell Technologies is just one example of a development with the potential to revolutionise the food and beverage manufacturing industry, by eliminating waste, increasing yield and birthing new products whilst still keeping capitalists in capital.
What they do lack, is the courage to innovate and to embrace change, the imagination to visualise a meal of the future, and what in Africa, we call the spirit of Ubuntu – the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.
By addressing these shortcomings, we wouldn’t have to wait for anything close to 12 years to achieve the UN sustainable development goal, which says that by 2030 we should “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses”.
In fact, this target looks unambitious and distinctly wishy-washy in light of what we could achieve by next year, if we had the will and the cojones. The 2030 initiative is driven by the biggest food and beverage companies who think they will lose out if they stray too far from what they know and understand now about production and continue to generate these current wastage levels.
Our planet already produces enough food to sustain the extra 2.2 billion+ people who will live on it by 2050. What is still required is a paradigm shift based on the most basic answer to a simple question: Why do we eat?
The answer to that question is energy transfer. In primitive times, hunters and gatherers had to put so much energy into obtaining their food, there was little likelihood of them getting fat. Modern farming and processing techniques have turned that natural logic on its head.
Now we eat because it tastes good, because we are in a particular social situation, because we’re stressed, because we worked hard and think we deserve an expensive meal, because a brilliant chef made the plate look like a work of art or because feeling full makes us happy.
Rediscovering the simple truth that “we eat to live” is the vital precursor to a food revolution for which, the all-important scientific and technological advances have already been made.
What will that revolution look like? Critically, it will be waste-free. Just as importantly, if it is to be sustainable, it will deliver cheaper, but better food for hundreds of millions more people. Our calculations show that the mythical “dollar a day” needed to feed each hungry person can be cut to more like 40 US cents.
The revolution will also be more profitable for the big food companies. Using technology that efficiently liberates the energy and flavour in every cell of a foodstuff will reduce overheads, shorten production processes and yield revenue-generating by-products.
On its own, eliminating waste delivers a median 14-fold return on investment, according to a study by Champions 12.3, a coalition of executives from governments, businesses, universities and agricultural organisations.
The revolution will also be healthier. The ability to use discarded but nutritious skins and seeds makes a huge contribution, bolstered by the extraction of every atom of energy from all foods, reducing the requirement for artificial additives.
We stand at the threshold of an era in which, what we now think of as waste can be turned into something that is cheap as chips but better than what the richest citizens of the world are currently eating. As with most revolutions, however, there are those who stand in the way – mainly individuals and organisations whose prosperity depends on the status quo.
My response to them is encapsulated in a quote from the American architect, designer and inventor Buckminster Fuller: “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”