Food is essential to human survival. Along with water, the human body needs energy from food intake in order to sustain itself. Food is a basic human necessity and access to safe and adequate food is a basic human right. Yet in 2019, 1.9 billion people were food insecure, meaning that they did not have reliable access to sufficient, affordable, nutritious food.
Following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, these numbers are estimated to be even higher - the United Nations calculates that this figure rose to 2.3 million in 2021.
Although food insecurity affects developing countries such as sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America more strongly, this is an issue that also affects developed countries.
People are going hungry even in countries considered to have rich economies and high gross domestic product per capita.
The well-being and health of our communities is something that we are passionate about at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing at the University of Malta. We believe that in raising awareness of these social issues, we are helping to create stronger, more mindful communities.
The world produces more than enough food to feed the entire global population. In fact, about a quarter of the food that is regularly thrown away or lost (for example, to incorrect production or storage practices), could feed all the world’s hungry people. This terrible dichotomy makes it all the more crucial to confront the issue of the food we waste. Food wastage has a high impact on the world: economically, environmentally and socially.
The UN Environment Programme reports that about 1.3 billion tons of food, a third of all food produced, is wasted globally every year. Differing from food loss, which principally refers to food whose quality or value diminishes before it reaches stores, food waste occurs when food that is perfectly edible is thrown away.
Put simply, food waste refers to food that completes the food production cycle up to the final product that is fit for consumption but gets discarded. Food ‘lost’ at the post-retail stage, i.e. after it enters the stores, is usually either bought then discarded or not sold at all but thrown away.
Besides being a waste of money, this also amounts to a huge waste of the resources that go into food production – land, water, energy and human labour. About a third of all the food that is thrown away is perfectly edible and could easily feed the 820 million people that go hungry worldwide.
Malta is one of the highest waste generators per capita in the European Union with food waste by consumers being especially high
Although the countries that have the largest totals of discarded food are the ones with the largest populations, namely China, followed by India and the US; food waste per capita tells a different story.
A 2021 Forbes article by Niall McCarthy placed Australia at the top of the food waste scale, with 102kg of wasted food per household per year, compared to 59kg for US households and 77kg for households in the UK.
Malta is one of the highest waste generators per capita in the European Union, with food waste by consumers being especially high, amounting to around 50% of municipal waste.
While no exact data exists for Malta, estimates place food waste in our country at around 139 to 129 kg per capita per year, which is well above the UN global average of 74kg per capita per year. The cost to Maltese households of all this wasted food is calculated to be around €360 - €450 per year. A 2020 report commissioned by the NGO Friends of the Earth Malta (FoEM), to examine what proportion of food waste comes from the retail sector found this it be 5%.
Although as a percentage this figure may seem small, it still amounts to huge wastage annually. How is it that we throw away all this food?
In developing countries, food waste occurs mostly at post-harvest and processing levels, while in more advanced economies, food is thrown away mostly after it enters the retail process.
Fruit and vegetables make up most of the discarded food, followed by cereals, grains and fish products, after which comes meat.
Although, as FoEM point out, retail food waste may be easier to repurpose, household food waste is an area where each individual can make a difference through slight changes in behaviour.
Factors driving domestic food waste are buying excess food, lack of preparation such as meal plans and shopping lists, cooking too much food that then remains uneaten, food spoilage and confusion over date labels that result in food being thrown out although it is still fit to eat.
Each of these areas is relatively easy to address at an individual level. Simple switches, such as preparing a food plan for the week, not only aid in minimising waste, but also in eating a healthy and balanced diet.
This will also enable meals to be planned around the time available for cooking and meal preparation so that time constraints will not result in food being thrown away on days where a quick meal needs to replace one that would need more preparation.
One area where food waste can really be minimised is better understanding of food labels. The European Commission calculates that about 10% of food thrown away in EU countries is discarded due to confusion about date labelling.
The European Commission is currently in the process of drawing up new proposals for its date labelling regulations, as well as implementing new food waste reduction targets as part of its Farm to Fork Strategy, to be issued by the end of this year.
Currently, in Malta, food labelling is largely covered by ‘Use By’ and ‘Best Before’ date labels on food products. Some foods, such as infant formula, meats or dairy products, require stringent date labels and are marked with a ‘Use By’ date.
This is usually based on a tested period of time for which the food item retains its nutritional value. ‘Use By’ dates need to be followed, as the item may not be safe to eat after the stated date.
Foods with a longer storage life, however, carry date stamps that are more about quality and indicate a date before which the food item will look as well as taste its best.
'Best Before’ date labels are usually more a recommendation than a stringent requirement, and often, unless the food has changed drastically in quality, texture or colour, it can still be safely consumed. In all cases, proper storage will extend the life of food, save money and reduce wastage.
Reducing our food waste is important not only for our household economics, but also as our contribution to the health and moral integrity of our communities. Beyond the economic aspect, food production has an environmental, social and moral footprint. By making small changes to how we buy, store and consume food, we can have less wastage and live more healthily.
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Annabel Cuff is a research support officer at the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, University of Malta