A Wicked Problem

A Wicked Problem

Iva Miranda Pires, Associate Professor at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, discusses the ethical, environmental and economic issues of food waste.

Black and white photography of Iva Miranda Pires
Iva Miranda Pires
Associate Professor at the Faculdade Ciências Sociais e Humanas (FCSH), Universidade Nova de Lisboa
Close up view of combine harvester pouring a tractor-trailer with grain during harvesting.

FAO estimates that 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted around the world, making up around a third of all food produced, with an associated (economic, environmental and social) cost of 2.24 trillion euros. In the European Union, estimates point to 89 million tonnes of waste per year throughout the food chain, with families being responsible for 53.6%. Besides the scale of the problem, food waste also raises ethical, economic and environmental questions, and it’s important to reflect on them too.

While a considerable volume of food appropriate for human consumption ends up in the waste bin, many families face situations of food insecurity. According to FAO, 821 million people face chronical malnutrition or food insecurity, of which 790 million in the developing countries, and that number has not ceased to increase. On the other hand, whenever we throw food away, we are also wasting economic resources. In industrialised countries, numbers show that families are the main source of food waste, which can account for up to 25% of the food acquired per family per year. This means that saving money might be the leading motivation to encourage families to reduce the amount of food wasted.

Lastly, food production is one of the economic activities with the largest ecological footprint, due to the amount of natural resources consumed (for example, water, a resource under huge pressure in the 21st century), because it contributes to deforestation (the Amazon rainforest continues to shrink in order to clear land to grow soy to feed cattle, so we can eat meat), because it speeds up the process of soil erosion and contributes to climate change (through methane emissions, for instance).

Food waste is a complex social problem (a wicked problem) for which there are no simple solutions. Above all, it’s crucial that all (the) stakeholders involved in the food chain – from production and distribution, to the hospitality and food service sector and families – cooperate in building solutions.

The best way to fight food waste would be to stop producing it.

Reducing food waste is part of the United Nations resolution “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, made up of 17 goals which should be achieved by 2030. Goal number 12.3 appeals to all stakeholders in the production chains to contribute to halve per capita global food waste. In order to accelerate progress towards achieving that goal, Champions 12.3 was created, a global coalition of executives from governments, businesses, international organisations, research institutions, farmers’ associations and civil society.

The best way to fight food waste would be to stop producing it. However, when it does happen, finding ways to value foods which are now, for various reasons, ending up in landfills seems to be the most sensible approach. Donating restaurant food surplus and products left on supermarket shelves with approaching sell-by dates is a way of contributing to meet that goal. When this proves impossible, entrepreneurship can play a relevant role. Food waste is increasingly being regarded as a business opportunity, benefitting both the entrepreneur and the environment, as well as reducing the cost involved in collecting and processing waste. In the context of circular economy, there are already many examples of companies all over the world which found creative solutions to transform food waste into business opportunities.

Using waste coffee grounds to extract base oils for biofuels and processing the remaining solids into biomass pellets for heating, beer produced from leftover bread from bakeries, biodegradable plastic or fermented drinks based on whey protein, biodegradable bags made from cassava, extracting pigments from discarded fruit to make natural food colouring, producing compost or animal feed are a few examples. Other uses are making soups, juices and jams from overripe “ugly” fruit and vegetables to be sold on to the public.

Reducing food waste will not completely solve the problem of world hunger/famine, but it will bring countless benefits and contribute towards a more sustainable future. Food insecurity could be mitigated if waste were to be reduced, thus increasing food availability, and if consumers, the food industry, farmers and distribution companies were to donate more of the produce they are currently discarding, despite the fact that they are still edible. The benefits for both the environment and the economy are also extremely relevant because they will help to reduce the costs incurred by farmers, companies and families, and also contribute to alleviate the pressure on natural resources, such as soil and water, and on the climate, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

Share on FacebookGoogle+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail to someone