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Ramadhan and the Lesson on Food Waste

Ramadan is a month of introspection for Muslim communities all over the world. Both rich and poor fast and focus on what is truly essential in their lives. Hunger and thirst are reminders to be more appreciative of what we usually take for granted: food.

This holy month may therefore be the best time to re-evaluate how we consume food and to redefine our attitude towards it. It is also the most fitting moment to make a stand against food waste and ignite change regarding the food waste epidemic we are experiencing today.

Food waste has only become a more severe problem in recent years and currently the world wastes a preposterous amount of food annually— no less than 1.3 billion tons. This includes 45% of all fruit and vegetables, 35% of fish and seafood, 30% of cereals, 20% of dairy products and 20% of meat.

There are nearly a billion malnourished and starving people, with approximately 36 million dying from famine every year. And the solution to world hunger is not to produce more food but to stop wasting so much of what we already have and to invent new ways of prolonging the shelf-life of food, so that it can be stored and sent to those who need it the most before it perishes.

The High Cost of Food Waste

Annually, one-third of the world’s food goes astray between the farm and the fork. Let this sink in for a moment: while one in eight people in the world continues to suffer from inadequate nutrition, more than a billion tons of food never actually make it to the plate. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that if we were to reduce just one quarter of that food waste, we could feed 870 million hungry people.

Wasted food also presents a huge climate change issue because it generates 3.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. As it decomposes, it also exudes methane gas, which is 25 times more harmful than CO2. If food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest greenhouse gas contributor, after China and the U.S.

If this continues to be a trend and the need for a change is not properly addressed, then we will all be responsible for the loss of precious resources that are used in food production. Globally, agriculture accounts for 70% of humankind’s total freshwater consumption. However, it is important to note that when food is left unconsumed, not only water and land are wasted, but also all the other inputs that are used to grow, process, chill, and transport it.

Once food winds up in the landfill, we are never able to recover the huge amount of resources that have gone into producing it. When that loss is translated financially, the cost is enormous. Annually, China wastes $32 billion worth of food while Americans manage to multiply that amount by five, reaching $160 billion. And globally, we spend approximately $990 billion each year to produce food that nobody eats.

From these huge numbers, almost half of discarded food formed part of household waste. Per capita waste by consumers in wealthy countries like Europe and the U.S is phenomenal, ranging from 96 to 115 kg a year. This forms a sharp contrast with consumers in many parts of Asia and Africa who on average only throw away 6 to 11 kg each. In fact, every year consumers in developed countries waste as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa, which stands at 222 million tons.

It is true that western countries are the biggest contributors to the food waste epidemic. In Asia and Africa, the phenomenon is also happening, but this is mainly due to the lack of storage technologies and techniques. These two factors are responsible for fruit and vegetables becoming spoiled on the way from farms to markets. In many developing nations, very little food is wasted by consumers. Food is expensive for them due to its scarcity and it is too precious to let it end up in a trash can, unused.

Change How the Business Works

Tackling the food waste problem is critical from many perspectives, be they social, political, or economic. Campaigns and movements to fight food waste will only began to be effective when whole societies – governments, farmers, distributors, retailers, and consumers – are actively involved.

Since the issue has begun to attract global interest, many restaurants and supermarkets have begun to apply zero waste programs, donating excess packaged foods with short shelf lives to charity. In the UK alone, the food industry is estimated to have waste 1.9 million tons of food every year. If it was better managed, 400,000 tons of it could be redistributed to those in need and hunger in the country could be ended.

Among other wealthy countries who are major contributors to food waste, France is the first country to introduce specific food waste legislation by banning supermarkets from discarding unsold food and requiring restaurants to provide doggy bags when customers ask to take their leftovers home. Other countries should follow suit these steps so that food sustainability can be preserved in the long run.

Another thing that governments and businesses need to do is to change current labelling practices. The issue arises due to the way best-before labels are used. Often, the package dates are inconsistent and have been proven to be subjective. Premature expiration date practices can cause customers to throw food out when it is still safe to eat.

As previously mentioned, producing and delivering food entails having access to various resources. Globally, industrial agriculture has degraded soil quality and heavy pollution has also affected the water quality. These issues could adversely impact on worldwide food security in the years ahead. Therefore, we need to make sure that the food we produce today is properly protected.

Improvement in storage technologies should be our top priority. The use of evaporative coolers, storage bags, and crates must be applied to large scale farming and distribution practices. We would then be able to keep food fresher for a longer time and to enable it to remain in its best condition throughout the harvest, storage, and transportation processes, until it arrives in the hands of the customers.

Change How We Value Food

We all have the ability to make changes. We can all do our part in finding ways to throw away less food. But first, we have to change the way we shop, and value food for what it represents. Also we must acknowledge that we often refuse to buy “ugly” fruits and vegetables, and it is therefore currently in businesses’ best interests to sell only perfect products. We don’t buy apples if they have an irregular shape, or we may not even bother to look at piles of carrots and tomatoes just because their colours are not bright enough. Their quality and taste however, are generally the same as that of what we perceive – due to marketing – to be the perfect-looking versions.

It is also important to make meal plans and prepare our shopping lists before going to the grocery stores. The priority is to not overbuy food. What gets measured, gets managed. We need to take a look at what we already have at home and buy only what we need. If we don’t, the food will only end up in a trash can.

The same caution should also be applied when cleaning out our refrigerators. Just because the food has become blemished and its freshness might have decreased slightly, does not mean that it is spoiled and unsafe to consume. Before carelessly throwing food away, we should look at what we waste and recognize how precious it is. This is what fasting in Ramadan teaches us all.