In the battle against climate change, we need to tackle a problem with far-reaching societal ramifications: food waste. Yet a nexus including what Devex characterises as “artificially low food prices that distort markets”, citing a World Bank report, is driving the problem.
Hunger is a growing crisis. Action Against Hunger tells us “around the world, more than enough food is produced to feed the global population—but more than 690 million people still go hungry. After steadily declining for a decade, world hunger is on the rise, affecting 8.9 percent of people globally. From 2018 to 2019, the number of undernourished people grew by ten million, and there are nearly sixty million more undernourished people now than in 2014.” Undernourishment affects 800 million.
India is acutely affected by hunger. In an article I wrote for Health Issues India earlier this year, I noted
“Hunger is an interrelated and complex issue, with environmental and sanitation concerns overlapping. Climate change is widely understood to be an exacerbative force for food insecurity. India is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change and so its malnutrition crisis is poised to be hard-hit…how India grapples with the crisis of environmental disruption and enacting and preserving a robust sanitation system will be key in the fight against hunger.”
That food waste is a driver of climate change – which, in itself, drives malnutrition – is a bitter irony. More than one-third of food produced globally goes to waste. The amount of food waste we generate is worth US$1 trillion, weighing 1.3 billion tonnes. Were food waste to be a nation, it would be responsible for the third-largest number of emissions of greenhouse gases (drivers of climate change) behind only the United States and China.
However, the odds are stacked against us in making meaningful progress in reducing food waste without seismic changes. The Devex report expounds: “both producers and consumers avoid paying for the true cost of the environmental impact of agriculture. Government subsidies provided to both producers and consumers reduce the incentive for them to save food.”
The report quotes Geetha Sethi, lead author of the report and advisor to the World Bank in its agriculture and food global practice division, as saying “effectively, the prices no longer are market prices, which means they are not really incorporating the actual cost of production, and the actual cost of production means using the scarce environmental resources. If they get artificially priced in a way that it just doesn’t make it worth saving, right, if the price is too low we don’t bother, it’s just not worth the cost.
“So it creates a very artificial market-clearing mechanism, and the outcome of that is this global bad, which [are these] thirty percent losses. The system is not really growing enough of the nutritious food. The market signals get distorted.”
In India, approximately forty percent of food is wasted to the tune of Rs 92,000 crore (US$12.48 billion). This is in a country where hundreds of millions starve – and where vulnerable populations stand to lose much more if the climate fight is not executed effectively.
“If one-third of production is being lost and agriculture is seen as the biggest driver of biodiversity losses and land use, then not being able to use everything we produce with the scarce resources makes it a big solution to some of these bigger problems,” Sethi told Devex. “Whether it’s climate, environmental stress, biodiversity losses, and hunger — pretty much it is a solution to these challenges that we see.
“And with the diagnostics, we now know that addressing losses and waste, we actually do have a reduced carbon footprint, we…improve food and nutrition security and reduce environmental stress.”
Food is not a luxury – it is a right. To waste it is not a luxury we have. As the climate crisis continues, and we lose more time due to inaction, addressing the root causes is an existential imperative. Food waste, the evidence tells us clearly, is one of those root causes.
“Addressing Food Loss and Waste: A Global Problem with Local Solutions” can be accessed here.