By Kary Vannice
I’m going to tell you what I hope is a shocking statistic:
In Mexico, 37% of all food produced in-country goes to waste. That equates to over 10 million tons of food each year!Let me put that into a more quantifiable and important context. That’s enough food to feed seven million Mexicans yearly.
Before you start wondering what’s wrong with Mexico, let me assure you, Mexico is not alone in this. Globally, nearly one-third of all food produced is never consumed.
“Food waste,” according to the UN, is: “losses resulting from the decision to discard food that still has value and is mainly associated with the conduct of the wholesalers and retailers, retail food services, and consumers.”
When experts calculate food waste in terms of US dollars wasted or lost, in so-called “first world” countries the number is $680 Billion! In developing countries, like Mexico, that number is less than half, $310 Billion, but still a huge number.
With so much talk these days about food insecurity, world hunger and failing economies, how can so much food be finding its way into landfills, and one would hope, compost piles?
The answer is, of course, complex and multifaceted. The problem is so large that to get a true handle on it, researchers analyze waste at each stage of the food value chain – production, post harvest, storage and transportation and then, of course, consumer and post-consumer waste.
Starting at the source, on farms and ranches, miscalculation of what crops are in demand leads to fruits and vegetables rotting in the fields, and other products, like cow’s milk, for example, being poured down the drain. Consumer demand drives production, that’s a given. If there’s no demand, what’s a farmer to do?
But there’s another aspect of consumer demand that contributes to a vast percentage of good, eatable foods being dumped – aesthetics. Let’s face it, we’re pretty picky about how our food looks, especially in developed countries. Nowadays, a carrot that grows two “legs” is never going to see the light of day in a supermarket. Nor is a crooked cucumber or an ugly apple, no matter how tasty they may be.
In developing countries like Mexico, as much as 15% of all fruit and vegetables never makes it off the farm. Nearly another 24% is lost in the process of getting food into the hands of the consumer.
Interestingly, food waste at the consumer level is four times higher in developed countries than it is in developing countries, 28% compared to 7%. Some have the luxury of waste. The problem is, many more do not.
According to the World Bank, 53% of Mexico’s population is living on less than $2/day, while close to 24% of those are living on less than $1/day. Poverty equals food insecurity; most of these people cannot meet their basic nutritional needs for some or all of the year. In Mexico, at least 10% of the population in every state suffers from food insecurity.
It’s not that there’s not enough food produced to feed the majority of the poor, it’s that too much food goes to waste. So what’s the solution? Well, the solution is as complex and multifaceted as the problem of how the waste occurs in the first place.
However, the good news is Mexico coming up with encouraging solutions in many diverse sectors. The first of which, and arguably the most important, is legislation.
In April, Mexico City law makers passed the Altruistic Food Donation Act. This law makes it legal to donate food that is considered “waste” by some, but desperately needed by others. It aims to support both public and private organizations working together to reduce food waste while feeding the hungry. And, this legislation goes a step further, instituting punishment for those who destroy or throw away food still fit for human consumption.
Back in March of 2012, Mexico City officials came up with the ingenious idea of exchanging recyclable trash for food at local farmer’s markets. The project is called Mercado de Trueque (The Barter Market). Buyers bring in paper, cardboard, aluminum cans, plastics, glass, etc. and exchange them for vouchers (that look very much like money) to spend on fruits and vegetables grown by local producers.
This effort has been wildly successful in Mexico City and is reducing landfill waste on two fronts, recyclables and food that would not otherwise be bought and sold. It also means that consumers don’t need to have actual money to “buy” the food they need.
Beyond policies and legislation, innovation also plays a role in the war on food waste. Last year, Forbes magazine ran an article about a food-tech start-up in Monterrey, Mexico, headed by two young Mexican men in their 20’s who are using science to turn food waste into usable products to put back into the food value chain. Their first big product, a powder made from the seeds, pulp and peels of discarded mangoes; the powder acts as an emulsifier that can replace up to 50% of eggs and fat in baked goods. It can also be used as a substitute for sugar, pectin and anti-foaming agents in jams and jellies, and even serve as a texturizer and natural preservative in sausages and other processed meats. This is significant because in Mexico more than 54% of mangos go to waste!
Another technological innovation just starting to be used in Mexico is an IT platform called FarmIT used by farmers to manage not only their farms, but the entire food value chain from seed to fork, vastly reducing food waste at every stage along the chain.
Individuals, like you, can also play a role in minimizing food waste. Be willing to buy less than perfect looking produce from local farmers. Be more conscientious when you order food in a restaurant or buy food in stores, so you don’t end up throwing as much food out. Donate food you won’t or can’t eat. You can always look for ways to become an activist in your area to reduce food waste on a larger scale.
You may wonder if any of this could actually have an impact on such a large scale-problem. The data indicate the answer is “yes.” In June 2013, The World Resources Institute released a paper estimating that if food waste was cut in half, from 24% to 12% worldwide, by 2050 we would have saved 22% of the food needed to feed the world’s population. That’s a pretty significant number for simply saving something that was bound for the waste bin.