Waste not, want not: a new mantra

Boosting global food production is often cited as the key to meeting the nutritional needs of a rapidly expanding world population.

But reducing food waste could also play a huge role, according to experts attending a food security conference hosted by the Global Institute for Food Security (GIFS) in Saskatoon.

“Globally, according to the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization), one-third of all the food that’s produced each year is lost or wasted,” said Alex Winter-Nelson, an agricultural economist from the University of Illinois.

“That’s 1.3 billion tonnes of food per year. That’s a lot. Each year, that’s more than enough to feed all the people who are undernourished in the world.”

Winter-Nelson has spent the majority of his academic career studying food waste.

His research focuses on the impacts that technology and government policies have on poverty and food security.

During a presentation at the GIFS conference, Winter-Nelson said the elimination of food waste and the distribution of that food to people who need it would eradicate world hunger.

It would also have a positive impact on the health of the environment since fewer resources, including land and fresh water, would be used.

“There’s a food security argument for caring about (food waste) and there’s also an environmental argument,” he said.

“Wasted and lost food accounts for one-twelfth of all greenhouse gas emissions.”

Winter Nelson was recently appointed director for the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Post-Harvest Loss, also known as ADMI.

The institute was founded in 2011 in response to rising amounts of staple crops that are lost each year in food chains around the world.

Global food company ADM contributed $10 million toward the establishment of the institute, but the institute itself is autonomous.

It is involved in research, awareness, engagement and education initiatives aimed at reducing post harvest losses.

According to Winter-Nelson, about 300 million acres of arable land are used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted. That’s an area as big as the country of Mexico.

In affluent countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, most food waste takes place at the consumer level.

In the United States, for example, more than half of all the food that’s wasted is categorized as “home or municipal” waste — food that’s purchased by consumers but never eaten.

This category includes strawberries that go mouldy in the fridge and are thrown out, and food that’s served but is not eaten.

By comparison, roughly 10 percent of the food waste that occurs in the United States each year occurs at the farm level and is the result of poor storage or poor post-harvest management.

In developing countries, where hunger and malnutrition is more common, food waste at the household level is virtually non-existent.

Instead, close to 40 percent of the food waste takes place at the farm level, primarily because farmers lack basic machinery and storage systems that protect crops from spoilage, insects and contamination.

Another 40 percent is wasted during transport and processing.

Winter-Nelson said the introduction of a few basic tools such as portable grain dryers, threshing machines and grain storage bags would significantly reduce post-harvest losses in Africa and Asia.

Advancements in plant breeding and the introduction of new, more productive plant varieties has allowed farmers in many developing nations to grow more grain on the same amount of land, he added.

But harvest, handling and storage systems have not improved significantly, meaning the amount of food waste continues to increase as production capacity improves.

Maurice Moloney, executive director and chief executive officer at GIFS, said deployment of basic machines and technologies in developing nations is one of the most visible solutions to reducing food waste and addressing global hunger.

“Most of the crops that are grown in Africa today have a yield potential of at least four times what the average yield is,” Moloney said.

“With very simple interventions — technologies that are literally off-the-shelf — we could improve corn production in Africa by almost four-fold.”

An existing technology such as B.t. corn could make a huge difference, he said.

“But you can’t do any of these things without a favourable regulatory climate.”

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