A recent National Waste Inventory Survey report by the National Statistics Bureau indicates that nearly half (46 percent) of the total wastes we produce comes from food waste. This amounts to 78,988kg of food waste per day. In other words, it equals to 0.3 kg of food per day for every household in Bhutan. Even assuming the 6 percent of the waste to be inevitable as it accounts for peel-offs, hardy part of fruits, etc., parts that cannot be eaten, still saving the remaining 40 percent means saving 68,864kg of food per day. Can you think of the wastage as apples or other fruits that savour your taste? Do you like them to go into the waste bins?
Food is wasted along the supply chain—in production, distribution, transportation, storage, and consumption. The above data, however, show the wastage resulting from consumption, which occurs at home, restaurants, hotels, bars, institutes, health centres, industry, and at the vegetable vendors’ storage units.
The cost of wasting food goes beyond the value of food only
The calculation of the value lost in wastage at consumption considers a single value —the quantity lost. Food, however, is not a product of single input; production of food requires what economists call the factors of production, including land, capital, and labour. If we are to take into account all these factors in monetary terms, then what we are losing through food wastage is a staggering sum of money. The economic value of food loss is derived from the loss of food itself and the resources used in production. Calculating the market value of potato at Nu 30 per kg, wasting 68,864kg is equivalent to the loss of Nu 2,065,920 per day.
Food wastage only aggravates the issues of limited resources. Bhutan has only 3 percent of arable land suitable for growing crops, and water scarcity is an increasing problem. The growing population would come at a point where this meagre fraction of land will be inadequate for producing food to meet the demand. The growing demand for food and an economic race in the supply side will come at the cost of the scarce resources.
The more the food waste, the higher the production. Offsetting the nexus between food waste and food production will encourage crop growers to use chemical fertilizers to boost production. The use of chemical fertilizers adversely affects the ecosystems including soil, water, and air. Fertilizer supplements will also harden the soil, alter the microorganism composition, and cause a loss of natural fertility. Ingestion of fertilizers through food causes a string of unending health issues and complications. The use of fertilizers kick-starts a vicious circle called a feedback loop, which then sets the negative effects in an inexhaustible circular flow; impacts succeed impacts and then aggregate.
Preventing food waste means much more than itself
Today, the world’s most conscious agenda — to sustain life — is to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 2 aims to end hunger and achieve food security. To achieve this goal, reducing food loss is a significant step.
In 2017, the population poverty rate was 8.2 percent, which is 61,860 people of the total population. To put this in context, 68,864 kg of food saved (from 40 percent of the preventable loss) will serve one person with 1 kg of food per day. Considering that a person eats on an average of 2 kg of food in a day, at least, half of the people below the poverty line will have sufficient daily food.
The current Covid-19 pandemic crisis is a telling indicator of an impending large scale food crisis. Food import has become difficult, which indicates that we need a shift toward food sufficiency and security to prevent economic and health risks that come with food shortages. Immediate production of food is impossible; the answer lies in well planned and executed self-reliance and resilience measures. It is, therefore, important to, first, properly manage food loss and, second, venture into local production. The effort should start from home where food is wasted and move across other points in the supply chain of food.
Food Waste-Climate Change nexus
Food waste is the primary emitter of methane which is a more harmful gas than carbon dioxide: its earth-warming potential is 86 times higher than that of carbon dioxide. Methane remains in the atmosphere for about a decade before it decays to form carbon dioxide, itself not a benign gas. The carbon dioxide then will start its own warming work, a domino effect of methane. Studies have shown that 1000 kg of dry food waste emits 64 kg of methane. So wastage of 78,988 kg of food, converting it to 70 percent dry weight, results in 55,291 kg of methane emission every day. In Bhutan, every unit of food we waste will cause emission because we don’t have food recycling mechanisms to turn food waste into useful by-products. What we waste goes to the dumpsites, a veritable methane factory.
Climate change affects the quality and quantity of food production in many ways. An outbreak of pest and disease destroys the crops from the time seed is sown until the harvest. Water scarcity affects seed germination and inhibits growth of crops, and yield. Crop damages by climate-induced disasters is another concern for agriculture. To illustrate, a study conducted in 6 districts in Bhutan showed about 8079–16,159 tons of rice and 7202–14,405 tons of maize, both staple food, was lost to the impact of climate change.
So what can we do?
The solution to reducing wastage of food begins at farms through the plates — at every stage of the supply chain. At the consumer level, food is wasted when you can’t eat what you cook or order. Domestic food waste occurs when leftover food gets spoilt at home when you cook more than you can eat. Similarly, a lot of food goes to the bins in restaurants, hotels, and institutes, or any other eateries. The same applies to the feast you attend, big or small; there will always be food wastage. The solution seems personal. Changing consumption behaviour will significantly reduce wastage of food.
Refrigerating, drying, and possibly adding preservatives can be practised to avoid spoilage of food in stores. This also helps in inhibiting sprouting and greening of tubers and loss of nutrients from other foods. The simplest measure is to practice a culture of ‘first eat perishable food’ to reduce food spoilage. Seasonal food can be dried and stored to be eaten in other seasons. A proper wrapping, packaging, and handling of food will significantly reduce food waste at transportation and distribution. Damaged vegetables or fruits will likely spoil faster. Better harvesting techniques in the farms reduce damage and help in retaining freshness for a longer time. Adopting these small steps can make a great difference.
Preventing food loss is not an option, but a necessity.
Save food to save your health and the health of the earth.
Chandra Man Rai
M.Sc. Environmental Management
Forest Research Institute University, Dehradun