Food for Thought

Is globalisation a threat to current generations? Possibly. In future globalisation will be accepted as an economic and social norm; our future generations will view globalisation as an essential component of doing business. This will happen despite increases in protectionism to mitigate decline in resources, such as agricultural resources in some countries.

An increasing population combined with a decline in agronomic resources will lead to a constant, never-ending rise in world food prices. Then why, oh why do we waste food if it is a precious commodity? To put it in perspective, a child dies every 5 seconds as a result of malnutrition and hunger and 925 million people are hungry. Yet 1.3 billion tonnes of food is wasted!

Food waste is a global issue. Consumerism has created a belief that wasting food every day is part of daily life and the value/loss of food waste extends beyond general economic dimensions defeating our ability to holistically and accurately value the wastage.

Research estimates that a third of all the food produced in the world is never consumed, and the total cost of that food waste could be as high as US$400 billion (AU$509 billion) a year. A report by the United Nations shows that the food discarded by retailers and consumers in the most developed countries would be more than enough to feed all of the world’s 870 million hungry people.

More than a social cost

Food waste is not only a social cost. Climate change can have a lasting impact on food production as the production process consumes large amounts of land, water and fertilisers. The food industry needs to come to terms with its responsibility to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The fuel that is burned to process, refrigerate and transport it also adds to the environmental cost.

Additionally, most food waste is thrown away in landfills, where it decomposes and emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Food waste accounts for 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases annually across the world, equating to about 7% of the total emissions. While 7% may not be a significant amount, reducing food waste is an area where we can start making a difference in addressing climate change. The UN agency points out that methane gas from the world’s landfills are surpassed in emissions by only China and the United States.

The chain of responsibility

Many studies have demonstrated that the largest percentage of the waste takes place in different links of the food value chain. Total wastage at each link varies significantly across the globe.

In highly industrialised nations, food waste occurs toward the end of the chain – in hospitality and at the consumer level – whereas in the developing world, the majority of food waste occurs at the post-harvest level. To me, this is the low-hanging fruit. We already have the technology and knowledge to minimise food waste at the post-harvest level; it’s just a matter of getting it into the right hands and minds.

Some studies estimate the total wastage percentages to be around 40% in the agribusiness sector. The wastage numbers provided above are quite alarming and have unintended repercussions on costs, environment, carbon footprint, energy, water, and other ethical aspects such as animal wellbeing and food security. Because of these concerns, consumers and government expect the food business entrepreneurs to continuously endeavour to reduce the inefficiencies, which lead to wastage in food value.

Obviously, the food industry cannot be expected to shoulder the burden with regards to tackling the major environmental issues facing the world. Nevertheless, the agribusiness sector has an opportunity to become a world leader in the business of sustainability and to tap into emerging markets for demonstrably ‘clean and green’ food.

Food industry trade groups can play a vital role in influencing the value chain’s behaviours around food waste. In Australia, trade groups can work with the major supermarket chains to reduce waste in their stores and across their supply chain by educating them on expiration dates as well as selling smaller amounts or portions of food.

The trade groups can also influence its members to increase their food donations and address the fundamentals in their manufacturing processes to limit the amount of food wastage. For example, a major food company in the US changed the way it placed dough in shell for its potpies and saved 235 tons of dough in a year!

From harvesting and processing to wholesaling and retailing, food industries can reduce waste and increase profits by ensuring maximum efficiency in the use of food products. Cleaner production approaches can be used to analyse food wastage and relatively small investments in improving processes will be offset by significant savings in raw materials. For example, many fine food restaurants have tightened up food preparation to minimise wastage of often costly ingredients, thereby maximising their profit margins.

Governments can also play a pivotal role in addressing food waste. The US has proposed a bill, The Food Recovery Act, which aimed at tackling food waste in four main areas: consumers, supermarkets, restaurants, schools, and on the farm. The bill is seen as a roadmap to reducing food waste across the value chain.

In September 2015, Australia signed up to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one of which concerns Responsible Consumption and Production. As part of this goal, countries (including Australia) have committed to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses, by 2030.” Presumably at some stage the government will need to address this.

Linking awareness to action

Food waste management is one of the most relevant and critical issues today due to the loss in economic value, its influence on the environment and its impact on food security. And the issue of food waste will only grow as the world’s population grows.

Reducing food waste has a direct economic impact; one report suggests that reducing food waste from 20-50% globally could save US$120 billion to US$300 billion a year by 2030.

The difficulty is often in knowing where to start and how to make the biggest economic and environmental savings. While general awareness of food waste has risen globally, we need to do more to align and link awareness to actions in the workplace and in the communities.

Dealing with food waste is one avenue but preventing food waste is more impactful. Lifestyle and consumption are major drivers of environmental degradation. Modifying personal consumption patterns is a powerful human-driven initiative for a more sustainable society.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Katherine Anne Porter wisely said: “You waste life when you waste good food”.

A Thirsty World!

The global appetite for energy is immense – and growing. Each day, the world consumes “85 million barrels of oil, 240 billion cubic feet of natural gas, 14 million tons of coal and 500,000 pounds of uranium.” The numbers are growing. Given China’s awakening economy, soon mankind’s thirst for oil will surpass 1,000 barrels a second. That’s enough to drain an Olympic swimming pool in 15 seconds. At that rate, demand would empty more than 38,000 swimming pools each week. As the numbers suggest, “Our birthright of abundant, reliable energy is coming to an end.” Historically, the world has passed through eras of increasing demand for fuel, creating rising pressure on markets and supply chains. This inevitably led to a series of “break points.” Each break point opened a period of innovation when infrastructures changed to adjust to the new energy demands. Ultimately the “energy cycle’s” elaborate dance between growth and dependency generates more demand and another innovation provoking break point. This is nothing new.

Today, oil consumption and economic growth are clearly related. Expanding economies tend to consume increased amounts of oil. As the global economy, driven by growth in the U.S., China, India and elsewhere, continues to expand, the demand for oil will also increase. China’s economic growth and its growing petroleum demand are closely linked. In fact, the alliance between energy use and economic expansion in China is following the U.S. model. The key question is not when the last drop of oil will spill from the world’s oil-distribution spigot. The question is when the world will reach the point of declining production. As oil becomes harder to discover and acquire, producers can fall behind the curve – not because there isn’t enough oil, but because the refineries can’t keep up or the oil is trapped in shale deposits.

To keep the global economy growing, production needs to increase each year. World demand isn’t staying level, it’s expanding. The impending collision between the thirst for oil and its diminishing availability simply indicates that a major energy break point is looming. Just as kerosene provided the nineteenth century’s energy breakthrough, today’s world needs an innovation or a new technology that will bridge the past, present and future. No single cure-all exists – not natural gas or nuclear power, and not even electric-powered vehicles. These all have important roles, but they are not sufficient to stave off the oil break point. The pain associated with break points and rebalancing is usually borne, disproportionately, by individuals. Companies and governments have the resources to find alternative energy sources and adjust, but regular citizens are trapped in the long lines, squeezed by constricted budgets and troubled by the twists of an uncertain future. Individually, you can take steps to protect yourself. Look for ways to conserve energy. Substitute SUVs for smaller, more fuel-efficient automobiles. As you make daily life decisions, operate with the understanding that energy prices are probably going to rise. The era of inexpensive gasoline and stable energy prices is over. Price volatility is the norm for the foreseeable future.

Historically, difficulties in obtaining a steady flow of energy have always given way to new technologies, methods and resources. Just as the great British leader Winston Churchill anticipated trouble looming on the horizon and shifted his country’s naval forces from coal to petroleum-based fuel, tomorrow’s leaders have an opportunity to see the oncoming break points before they arrive. This is their chance to find new methods and energy sources that will contribute to a brighter tomorrow.

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope!

Martin Luther King Jr. said  “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope!”

Geologists have a habit of thinking that a million years is a short time – and in a sense it is. After all, the earth has existed for about 4,500 million years. For four-fifths of that time, single-celled organisms ruled the planet. Multi-celled plants and animals are believed to have developed only during the last 20% of that time. Humanity appeared only during the last sliver of earth’s existence.

One problem in trying to explain the oil crisis to young people is that few students are studying geology. Instead, they are majoring in economics, chemistry and engineering. Indeed, the very idea that there is a debate about the fact of global warming illustrates the problems that ensue when the populace is ignorant about science and geology.

Global warming is real. However, some of those who deny it compare temperatures now to those in the 1720s. On the face of it, this seems logical. After all, widespread coal burning began in 1720, heralding the advent of the Industrial Revolution. However, the comparison actually is spurious. Temperatures were different in the 1720s because the Little Ice Age extended to 1850. No one would want to go back to the cold temperatures of the eighteenth century. Weather patterns have fluctuated over the centuries, and human memory is short. Not so long ago, a glacier thousands of feet thick extended from Hudson Bay to New York City. Study the rocks in Central Park and you will see glacial scratches that are a mere 15,000 years old – a wink in the vast gaze of time.

The question posed is how to develop a sustainable approach to the environment, and how to learn the lessons taught by other important natural resources that already have been exhausted. For example, the last mine for excavating cryolite, a material in aluminium, ran out in 1987. Luckily, making synthetic cryolite is relatively easy. The future may bring other shortages of raw materials. For instance, the phosphate supply will only last about 300 years. Of course, an oil shortage would be quite different. Mankind has no readily available oil substitute.

Human societies and their governments must face real resource constraints and adopt forward looking policies, such as nurturing innovation, fostering conservation (“a euphemism for doing without”), setting better energy efficiency standards and making better use of existing technology (diesel-powered cars, nuclear power, wind turbines). Sometimes, it is even feasible to combine two “symbiotic” processes, such as growing crops that also can be fuel sources, for example bagasse, the “burnable waste” left when the sugar is removed from sugar cane.