This is one of those articles that is painful to write because it deals with the question of hunger. The issue of food sovereignty and security has been studied for many decades now; it refers to a set of public policies which promote, among other things, the autonomy, import substitution and agricultural development of countries. It’s a complex issue in its own right and has today been enriched by the concept of Food Justice, which at the global level foments sustainable agricultural and livestock development, focused on organic practices and with proposals for the establishment of urban and suburban agriculture, as well as municipal and neighborhood markets, all aligned with the construction of a new culture in food consumption that contributes to public health, beginning with a radical change in the menus of school canteens.
The initiative to reform these menus and create school and home vegetable gardens in order to change food culture has been led by the famous chef Jamie Oliver. His TED talk on this subject has been seen by more than 7 million people. In the United States the cause of Food Justice was taken up by First Lady Michelle Obama, whose visibility garnered impressive support among millennials and brought together a whole network of social organizations such as the well-known Food Corps organization, dedicated to connecting children with growing food in gardens and healthy eating in general. To make her initiative more than symbolic, she planted her own vegetable garden in the White House, and encouraged schools and families to do the same, as the seed of cultural change.
The real and potential impact of this movement is not limited to the issue of health. In addition to influencing consumption and culture, it generates energy saving: the chain of activities such as sustainable urban agriculture added to the network of local and municipal markets breaks the dependence on large corporations for the production and distribution of food and saves energy by reducing the scale of logistics and transportation operations.
Food Waste and Loss
When it comes to analyzing the question of Food Justice, there’s no avoiding the question of the waste and loss of food as the issue of hunger imposes itself on our minds. That 800 million people, about 10% of the population of the planet, live in conditions of hunger, forces us to ask ourselves about the things that we are not doing well. Remembering this fact every day would force us to do something about it and with a sense of urgency.
Experts in this subject point out that loss and waste are different things. Loss refers to what happens during the production and processing stages of food. Waste is the result of the practices of distributors, merchants and each of us, the consumers. Although they are different issues, loss and waste are conceptually united. I ask the reader to pay close attention to the following two figures: loss and waste combined come to the scandalous figure of 1300 million tons of food per year, or 30% of world production. Surely the sensitive reader has already drawn the obvious and sobering conclusion: reducing this figure by half would eradicate hunger.
In broad terms, in advanced and industrialised countries the quantity of food wasted is greater than that lost. The technical capacities of producers and food processors generate a trend towards the ever more intensive use of each item, for example, of some species of fish, in 1960, for every kilo of fish, 46% to 49% was used, by 2010 that percentage had risen to from 78% and 81%.
In rich economies it is waste that predominates and it is generated in two areas: the aesthetic practices of distributors and retailers, who throw out tons and tons of food in perfect condition in order to exhibit and sell only that of immaculate appearance. Waste is also produced by restaurants, especially fast food chains. The estimates are worrying. For example, for each ton of vegetables that a truck collects on a farm, less than 80% is offered to consumers. Distributors and retailers, each driven by the desire to sell large and well-dressed products, discard perfectly edible food items based on their supposedly defective size and appearance.
More dramatic still is what happens in homes. Food is wasted in so many different ways that I will only list the most common: we buy more food than we can use or need, therefore, sooner rather than later, the time comes when we are forced to throw it away, and we buy food products, especially canned or refrigerated ones, that we forget about until one day we check the expiry date and discover that it has already passed. Finally, a common scene in daily life; some of the food we are eating grows cold and we end up pushing it towards the edge of our plates, the last stop on the way to the trash can.
The situation in Latin America
In Latin America and other developing economies, where there have been periods of fierce struggle with hunger in the last seven decades, the predominant trend is the reverse: when we get up from the table, the amount of food we have left on the plate is usually small or very small. This conduct has its down side, in countries of our continent, such as Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela (when there was a sufficient supply of food there), Peru and others, in industries where workers have canteens provided by their employers there is generally an increase in food waste. This speaks of differentiated behaviors between home and work: the same person who at home leaves the plate clean, has no hesitation in discarding 30 or 40% of the food they are served at work.
Food loss is highest in Latin America in the production and processing stages of food preparation. There are cultural, technical and economic factors that influence this trend. It is often the case that the tools or knowledge are lacking to reach yields of over 70% in the growing of crops and the raising of livestock. Climatic disturbances also have adverse effects. Pests, droughts or an unexpected increase in rainfall level worsen the difficulties for an activity that is in any case a constant struggle against adversity. If we add to the above the impacts of crime –cattle rustling, killings by guerrillas or criminal gangs, or the heinous assaults that Venezuelan fishermen working in the waters of Lake Maracaibo suffer – we can understand why the indicators of food loss are so high in less developed countries and the challenges that lie ahead for those seeking to increase efficiency in this area.
There are many changes that need to be promoted in our consumption habits, in addition to personal and cultural ones. For example, in the United States, perhaps the developed country which wastes most food (30-40% of the food supply, estimated as being worth at $160 billion dollars, enough to almost end hunger in Africa), restaurant chains (the main generators of waste) cannot donate food at the end of the business day to indigent or needy people or any organization dedicated to Food Justice because they fear lawsuits filed by individuals or organizations claiming health problems from the consumption of those foods. However, the possibilities of cooperation between cities and commercial establishments to distribute food to the most needy while avoiding waste are endless, especially if legal risks are mitigated with specific reforms and basic control mechanisms.
If there is one good thing about this problem it is that a considerable part of the solution to it is in our hands. Careful planning of our food shopping, preventing the expiry date from turning the groceries we buy into trash, buying only what is really necessary and being honest about the amount we eat would already change the course of things considerably. If each family in the world reduced its current food waste by half, this would immediately lead to a decrease in the price of food. This would not only reduce our spending on food, but it would also give us the opportunity to participate with real and concrete actions in reducing the levels of hunger in the world.
Leopoldo Martínez tweets at @lecumberry