Food waste and hunger are serious global problems, but practical food rescue programs would help ease both simultaneously. The first step towards bringing about that reality is to get the right information and raise awareness. Israel is a prime case study — on Wednesday its National Food Bank released its first-ever report on the country’s food waste and rescue, at all stages from production to consumption. The report’s findings raise eyebrows, largely because most people are not yet aware of the scale and cost of food waste, but many other countries have measured similar figures of their own.
According to the report, Israel wastes 2.45 million tons of food annually, constituting 35% of overall domestic food production. The annual cost of that waste is some $2 billion per year, or about $157 per household every month. (This is no trivial loss, particularly on top of the comparatively strict certifications for kosher food in Israel, which have increased the price of producing food there by 5%, according to the finance ministry.) However, approximately 1.3 million tons wasted are rescuable, meaning worthy of human consumption (not spoiled, dirty, etc.).
But currently only 20,000 tons – less than 1% of food waste — are rescued in Israel. The report found that if 25% of food waste were rescued, it would end food insecurity for the country’s needy residents. Bridging that gap through handouts and subsidies would cost $765 million annually, whereas rescuing 25% of food waste would only cost $214 million — and it would be far less controversial.
Overall, 1.4 billion hectares of land — 28% of the world’s agricultural area — are used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The global cost is approximately $750 billion per year, and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions as well as unnecessary landfill overuse. (Even food waste that cannot be rescued should still be diverted to anaerobic digesters to create renewable natural gas – a previous Blouin News feature.)
However, in September the U.N. established a 50% food waste reduction goal by the year 2030. The U.S., a world leader in food rescue, and other countries have adopted a similar goal.
And there are proven ways to tackle food waste and turn it into an asset. In the developing world, the lack of refrigeration (“cold chain”) throughout the food supply chain accounts for 23% of food waste, according to the International Institute of Refrigeration. One independent study predicted that if developing countries had the same level of cold chain implementation as the developed world, there would be a 10-fold net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from food waste. While over 50% of wasted food can have its shelf life extended by the cold chain, “only 10% of worldwide perishable foods are refrigerated today,” so improving the cold chain would be an “immense opportunity,” said David Appel, president of Carrier Transicold & Refrigeration Systems.
In the developed world, the greatest obstacle is the lack of consumer awareness. According to Professor Judith Evans of London South Bank University, in developed countries 42% of food waste happens at the household level. Thanks to the U.K. awareness campaign Love Food Hate Waste, however, household food waste there has fallen 21% since 2010. But in the U.S., still about 31% of the food supply is wasted, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said “An average family of four leaves more than two million calories, worth nearly $1500, uneaten each year.”
However, there are some successful turnaround stories that could be scaled up. For example, Vermont passed a universal recycling law in 2012, which requires institutions that create large amounts of food waste to keep that food out of a landfill. Prior to the law, an estimated 60,000 tons of food was thrown away annually in the state, of which 30-40% was estimated to be edible. But afterwards, food rescue has increased 30%, and overall waste is down 54%; volunteers sort the food and the Vermont Foodbank distributes it to needy residents.
Through food rescue, partner agencies like local food shelves pick up unwanted food from neighborhood grocery stores to distribute. Food companies and farmers also give donations of food when there’s a labeling mistake or if the produce isn’t the right size for the wholesale market.
Restaurants are also a major source of food waste, but initiatives elsewhere in the world demonstrate how that is starting to change. As of January 1, businesses in Scotland producing more than 5kg of food waste per week (in effect, all restaurants) are required to separate it for collection. This is setting the stage for a ban on biodegradable municipal waste being sent to landfill as of 2020, and the Scottish Government has also announced a plan to introduce a food waste reduction target.
And change is coming to France, home to 3.5 million people that depend on free meals handed out by charities but where 7 million tons of food are thrown away every year. This costs the average French household $436 and the country up to $21.8 billion. But a new regulation came into force on January 1, requiring that restaurants that serve over 180 meals per day must provide “doggy bags” if diners request them. Although most French diners have never asked for take-out bags for fear of appearing ill-mannered, cheap, or unhygienic, cultural attitudes may change. Indeed, a poll in southeastern France found that 75% of French diners would be prepared to use a doggy bag to reduce food waste.
Returning to Israel, the National Food Bank report found that the country “is lagging behind most Western countries in awareness of the food waste problem and the importance of food rescue.” And policymakers in Jerusalem as well as in other countries should heed the report’s three main recommendations. Primarily, the report called for a national goal to halve food waste by 2030, in accordance with the U.N. objective. Secondly, it called for finalizing legislation to encourage food surplus rescue, citing the U.S. Good Samaritan Food Donation Act that absolves nonprofit organizations and food donors from civil or criminal liability. And lastly, the report urged that all state-financed institutions with kitchens catering 1,000 people or more be required to rescue food. “I hope this report will serve as a tool for other organizations and for the government to take action and improve the situation. Our goal is to wake up the public discourse on this issue,” said Food Bank CEO Gidi Kroch.
For the sake of the needy, the environment, and the economy, it’s time for the rest of the world to follow suit and start rescuing more food.