We all have a part to play in the war against food waste

We cannot continue to allow millions to go hungry while tonnes of perfectly good food end up in landfills every year.

Canned food is seen inside the Walworth County Food Pantry as rural hunger rises due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, US, October 17, 2020 [Bing Guan/Reuters]

On September 29, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UN Environment Programme observed the first-ever International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste. They urged everyone to take action to reduce food loss and waste across the entire agricultural value chain.

This is a timely message. Today, in a world where food worth more than $1 trillion is lost or wasted every year, more than 800 million people are hungry. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the problem worse.

According to the FAO, one-third of food produced for human consumption worldwide is annually lost or wasted along the chain that stretches from farms to processing plants, marketplaces, retailers, food-service operations, and our households. And there are many factors that contribute to food loss including limitations on crop production and other resource-saving agricultural techniques, inadequate transport and storage infrastructures, changing climate and excess purchases and portions.

Surprisingly, the proportion of food produced but not consumed within developing and developed nations are similar. However, the reasons for food waste in developed and developing countries are significantly different.

In developing countries, food waste happens during food production and is mainly due to climate-induced crop failures and inadequate infrastructures to transport food to the market and to store it once it is produced. By contrast, in the developed world, food is wasted mainly due to consumers buying or cooking more food than they need. In addition, according to a 2016 survey by the Harvard Food Law and Policy clinic, many consumers throw away perfectly good food because of confusing expiry date labels.

Despite most of the wastage taking place at the very end of the value chain, developed countries contribute significantly to global food waste. In the US, approximately 36 million tonnes of food – between 30-40 percent of the food supply – is wasted every year. In the UK, households waste 4.5 million tonnes of food each year. In Australia, nearly 7.3 million tonnes of food is wasted.

Associated with food waste are the economic costs that arise from the resources used to produce food. Farmers, for example, use 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen fertiliser and 1.5 billion pounds of phosphorous fertiliser annually to grow wasted crops while applying more than 750 million pounds of pesticide to protect food that often ends up wasted. According to FAO, “direct economic consequences of food wastage (excluding fish and seafood) run to the tune of $750bn annually”.

All these depressing statistics can lead people to think individual actions would not make a difference. In the fight against food waste, however, everyone’s contribution matters.

So what can individuals, businesses, organisations, and corporations do to stop food waste?

In developed countries, where consumers are responsible for most of the waste, every single person can play an important role in turning the tide. Simply by not buying more food than they can eat, consumers in the developed world can help significantly reduce food waste in their countries. Buying locally produced food, which does not face the risk of being spoiled during transport, can also help. Repurposing leftover food – especially after big celebrations like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl and Eid – can also have a huge effect.

Individual consumers can also help the fight against food waste by sharing their concerns with the restaurants they dine in or the markets and shops they buy their groceries from. If consumers start to choose establishments that take action against waste over others, more businesses will implement policies to prevent food waste.

Businesses themselves can do a lot to prevent food waste. They can encourage their customers to take leftovers home, and they can donate any excess produce to those in need. There are organisations in most developed countries helping businesses repurpose surplus food. In the US, for example, Feeding America partners with farm owners, food manufacturers and businesses to rescue food that would otherwise go to waste and send it to food banks, food pantries and meal programmes.

Fighting food waste also makes business sense. In 2017, a study evaluating financial cost and benefit data from 700 companies in 17 countries, found that for every $1 companies invested to reduce food loss and waste, they saved $14 in operating costs. The savings that can be made by avoiding food waste is also very high for private households. So advertising the financial benefits of taking action against food waste too can speed up change.

In developing countries, where most of the food goes to waste because of climate-induced failures, meanwhile, efforts geared towards helping farmers access resource-saving agricultural techniques and climate-smart practices to ensure all planted crops are harvested will go a long way. Investing in new technologies that expand the shelf life of fresh produce can also help reduce post-harvest losses. Campaigns to increase awareness about the issue can also pressure governments to invest more money in food waste reduction. And while consumers have a relatively smaller effect on food waste in the developing world, individuals can still help the fight by making sure that their household is not wasting food.

In short, there is something we all can do to ensure tonnes of food do not go to waste while millions are struggling with hunger across the world. While collective action is crucial, especially in the developed world, individual consumers and businesses can also make a big difference simply by changing their habits and practices.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.