Our planet is still very generous despite its advancing age. It is home to countless creatures and offers them many provisions such as nutrition and housing. The Earth only wants respect for the natural balance it provides in return.
However, it is undergoing a transformation with the advent of humanity, which has existed for 200-300 million years. In particular, the steps that are being taken to improve the quality of life as well as technological developments increase the pressures on nature and negatively affect the ecological balance. With the introduction of new mechanization into our lives over the last two centuries, we have faced the excessive use of resources in order to make production easier. This has led to problems that now have a global impact, such as climate change, air pollution, water shortages and biodiversity loss.
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) assessments, we have seen a twelvefold increase in the processing and use of resources in the last century alone. Likewise, in the last five decades, which have witnessed mass production and revolutions in information technology, we see that resource use has increased three times and consumption has increased four times. However, the fact that population growth has doubled shows us that individual consumption has increased.
One of the important issues today is food safety. In order to protect our health and to protect our quality of life, it is necessary to make the most of the Earth to a certain extent. This consumption, however, takes place in a very unfair way. One side of the world is struggling with hunger and misery, while the other side is rolling in wealth and wasting resources. This makes it necessary to take urgent measures.
Lives doomed to starvation
Improved living conditions and increased diversity in food has also led to a rise in consumption. In the last three decades, the world's population has grown by only 50%. However, the doubling of food production undoubtedly shows us that there is an increase in per capita consumption. However, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) assessments, more than 815 million people are struggling with hunger today. Another fact is that about 3 billion people do not eat healthily. Another 2 billion people are expected to join this figure by 2050.
However, the problem is not a lack of food but waste of it. Poverty, political instability, conflict and economic crises, as well as today's biggest problem, the climate crisis, are also among the factors that trigger and increase hunger. According to the World Bank, about 800 million people in the world have an income below the international poverty line, which is currently $1.90 a day. In fact, hunger also leads to poverty. This is because malnutrition causes a loss of strength and thus prevents employment in jobs that require physical power, eventually resulting in the loss of income.
Another reason for hunger is conflicts. According to the WFP, more than half of the 815 million people struggling with hunger – about 490 million people – live in countries such as Syria, Yemen, Myanmar and Sudan, which are riven by internal conflicts.
And our common problem is climate change. Increased rainfall, storms and droughts caused by extreme heat have also led to serious food insecurity in affected areas. El Nino, which struck in 2016 and has been described as the biggest hurricane in 50 years, negatively affected more than 20 million people in South America.
According to WFP evaluations, 34 million people suffered from hunger due to the effects of climate change in 2019 alone, while 24 million people suffered from economic crises. Moreover, it is likely that an additional 265 million people will face starvation due to possible famine that may result from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and the incremental impacts of climate change.
Loads of wasted food
If a fair distribution of 4 billion to 5 billion tons of food produced every year is achieved, it will be enough for the 9.7 billion people who will live on Earth by 2050. However, in our world of 7.5 billion people, 1 in every 9 people is struggling with hunger. This is because 30%-40% of the food produced each year, in other words, about 1.3 billion to 1.6 billion tons, is wasted. Moreover, these losses still occur even with food that is still in consumable condition. The main reason is that we throw away billions of tons of food.
If consumption remains so high, current production will have to increase by 60% to 120% depending on population growth by 2050. So, we will have to produce at least 3 billion tons of additional food. This requires more water use, more arable land and a high amount of energy for all of this.
Food waste is seen throughout the entire food value chain (production – blending – storage – processing – transportation – marketing – consumption). While losses may be experienced due to early harvest, plant diseases or insufficient harvest methods during the production phase, they may also occur due to insufficiency of the cold chain in the storage process, packaging and labeling problems during the processing and distribution phase, and meal planning mistakes as well as ignoring expiration dates during the consumption phase.
By and large, waste in the production, storage and processing stages is considered food loss, while waste in the distribution, marketing and consumption stages is considered food waste. According to FAO data, low-income countries experience at least as much food loss as high-income countries. These figures are 630 million and 670 million tons, respectively.
But there are big differences in the stage at which the loss occurs. Underdeveloped countries in regions such as Latin America, South Asia, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa have very high losses in the first stages – 61% in production, 65% in storage, 75% in processing and just 5% in the consumption phase.
According to World Resources Institute (WRI) data, 61% of food in the high-income countries of North America, Oceania and Europe and in industrialized countries (China, Japan and South Korea) is thrown away by consumers during the consumption phase, while 32% is lost during the early stages of production-storage-transportation-processing.
Around 35 million tons of grains, equivalent to 13% of all grains in the world, are lost during the storage-processing-distribution process, while only 2.5% of them are lost in the consumption stage. A similar case is also true for India. Around 40% of food is lost due to technological deficiencies in processes such as processing and storage.
As can be seen in the examples, food losses and waste are usually caused by technological incompetence in low-income countries and by excessive and unconscious consumption in developed countries.
Food waste has economic effects as well as social effects. The direct impact of the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted every year in the global economy exceeds $1 trillion. When the social impacts of $900 million and environmental impacts of $700 million are added, the annual impact of this figure on the global economy exceeds $2.6 trillion. Based on the 2018 World Bank data, this value would equal the eighth largest economy in the world.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture data, the proportion of food waste is 30%-40%, financially equivalent to $162 billion annually. The country has a loss of 128 million tons of food on an annual basis. In North America, where there is a total food waste of 169 million tons, Mexico ranks second with 298 million tons, followed by Canada with 13 million tons.
Likewise, 88 million tons of food is lost in the European Union, which corresponds to 20% of the food produced on an annual basis. Its impact on the EU economy is 143 billion euros ($167.4 billion) annually. Of this loss, 47 million tons occur in domestic consumption and 10 million tons in food services, and thus the total loss during the consumption stage amounts to 65%. Some 98 billion euros of financial loss is the cost of these losses during the domestic consumption phase.
Undoubtedly, the biggest negative impact of the loss is environmental, in areas such as water use, natural resource use, land degradation, biodiversity loss and pollution, among many others.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), if wasted food were a country, it would be responsible for 8%-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As such, it would be the third-largest country in emissions after China and the U.S. This value is also equivalent to at least eight times our country's emissions.
Land use, water loss and waste management are other important environmental impacts. The size of the agricultural area needed to produce food that is wasted every year is 9.6 million square kilometers (3.7 million square miles), which is equivalent to the surface area of China and 12 times larger than that of our country.
Likewise, the amount of water needed to produce the annual wasted food is 250 cubic kilometers (60 cubic miles). This value is equivalent to the annual volume of water flowing in the Volga, the longest river in Europe. Again, according to the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works (DSİ) data, the annual water use of our country – including drinking, irrigation and industry – is 57 cubic kilometers. The loss of water due to global food waste is equivalent to 4 1/2 years of our country's water needs.
When we look at the environmental effects of 169 million tons of food loss annually in North America in terms of regional assessment, there is a loss of 17 billion cubic meters of water and 22 million hectares of arable land. Again, the waste of about 4 million tons of manure used in the production of this food means using 38 million cubic meters of solid waste storage area. In addition, there is a loss of $319 million in biodiversity and trillions of kilocalories (kcal) in energy.
Waste in Turkey
The situation is not very different in our country. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) data, more than 7 million people still live at the hunger threshold in Turkey, while there is a considerable amount of bread and food waste in Turkey. The Turkey Waste Report, published in 2018 by the Ministry of Trade, also confirms this.
One of the biggest waste items, according to the report, is, surprisingly, bread. Some 6 million loaves of bread, equivalent to 7% of the daily bread produced, and 1.5 billion to 2 billion loaves of bread on an annual basis are thrown away without being consumed. However, bread has an important place in Turkish culture. It is a food that is respected and is lifted, kissed and put on the forehead even when it falls to the ground. This waste also means that 880 billion cubic meters of water used to produce this bread is wasted, which is an amount that can meet the needs of megacity Istanbul for 2 1/2 years.
As in the rest of the world, the waste of fresh fruits and vegetables ranks first among all food waste in our country. At least one-third of the 49 million tons of fruit and vegetables produced are lost during the production or distribution phase.
About half of food losses occur in harvest and post-harvest blending and storage processes, while about 30% occur in the marketing and consumption phases. In our country, which has great tourism potential, there are serious losses in the food offered. According to the report, 4.2 tons of food and 2,000 liters of drinks per year are wasted in an average business serving in our country.
When we consider it on a cumulative basis, approximately 19 million tons of food goes to waste per year in our country. That amount means a truckload of waste every minute. Material damage from food loss amounts to TL 214 billion ($26.95 billion) on an annual basis. With the loss incurred in only one year, mega projects such as at least three Kanal Istanbuls and dozens of city hospitals could be built in our country.
In order to prevent losses, many studies are being carried out on a global, regional and national scale. The most effective step forward on the global scale is undoubtedly the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) announced by the United Nations in 2015 for 2030, three are directly related to food: zero hunger, zero poverty, and conscious production and consumption. SDG 2, pointing to the “Zero Hunger” target, aims to reduce global hunger by half by 2030. At this point, many international organizations, such as the WFP, the FAO and the U.N. Environment Programme, work in coordination.
Again, in order to achieve this goal, regionally based activities such as those carried out by the EU and national awareness studies individually developed on a country basis are also increasing. By and large, the measures are focused on the stages where the loss is the most intense. It is of great importance to raise awareness among consumers in order to prevent losses incurred during the consumption phase.
The fight against waste has always been a hot topic in our country. This is because waste, excessive consumption and unnecessary consumption have never been welcomed in our culture. Throughout history, we have been a nation that acts with the motto “enough is as good as a feast,” and we will remain so.
In the fight against this problem, which concerns all of us, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academic circles and public institutions and organizations act in exemplary solidarity.
As a country, we have mobilized to save bread, one of the biggest waste items. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) preached sermons highlighting the importance of the subject in places of worship. The Ministry of Education reminded young minds of the importance of the subject in schools. TV channels have opened their doors to this subject.
Of course, the Turkish Grain Board (TMO), the foul-weather friend of farmers, coordinated the issue. As a result of the work carried out under the name of the Preventing Bread Waste Campaign, daily losses have been reduced by 18%, preventing 1,050,000 loaves of bread from going to waste per day and 384 million loaves of bread annually. Also, financial savings have reached TL 2.8 billion.
Our country is surrounded by seas on three sides, enjoys the Mediterranean climate for much of the year and has a great tourism potential because it is home to many historical, cultural and natural riches. Investments in the last two decades and increased transportation facilities have boosted interest in our country. Before the pandemic, our country was the sixth most tourist-attracting country in the world with about 50 million tourists annually. In addition, our country, which was home to many civilizations, has a rich culinary culture. No doubt, given all these elements, there are lots of restaurants, cafes and accommodation facilities in our country, and unfortunately, this leads us to a focal point where food losses occur.
In order to prevent food loss, mostly occurring during the consumption phase, in facilities such as hotels, which are also reflected in the Waste Report of Turkey, the orange flag practice has been developed. This practice, implemented through NGOs, is similar to the Blue Flag practice in structure.
This flag is given to food-friendly businesses and is an awareness study that acts with the slogan “Bon Appetit No Waste.” It covers issues such as training the staff working in facilities and delivering increased food to the needy through “food banks.” The main goal of the practice, which started in 2018, is to reduce food waste in accommodation facilities by 70% within five years. Recently, the idea of giving this document to organizations other than accommodation facilities, such as shopping malls and hospitals, has developed.
The food banking system, which is effectively used all over the world, gained legal ground in our country with a law enacted in 2004. More than 60 banks serve in 32 provinces, and this figure is expected to exceed 80 in the near future.
The increase in the number of the needy especially during the pandemic also increased the banks in importance and function. It is envisaged that TL 30 billion will be saved annually through the activities of this system, which works in partnership with local governments.
One of the largest environmental awareness projects in the world is being carried out under the auspices of first lady Emine Erdoğan. For the first time in the world, a first lady has patronized an environmental project. She has taken an active role in all aspects of the environment, nature and society. First lady Erdoğan's efforts did not go unanswered, and she was awarded by the FAO in 2018 for her environmental sensitivity.
The main goal of the project is to prevent waste, use resources more efficiently and recycle the waste produced by processing it instead of storing it. This is a perfect example of a circular economy model.
The system covers everyone. Zero waste documents are issued to restaurants, cafes, hotels, schools, public buildings, businesses and even municipalities that build zero waste systems. Studies and developments are recorded and monitored. As part of the practice, food waste prevention is also addressed. At this point, studies are being carried out within the theme of zero waste and zero hunger.
This is the world we live in: a world overwhelmed by obesity on the one hand, and by hunger and misery on the other. It is said that 1 out of every 3 food dishes is wasted in a world where three children starve to death every minute. Wasted food can feed the starving population four times over. We all have tasks to make a change. We can start by avoiding waste. Our main goal is zero waste and zero hunger.
*Deputy minister at the Republic of Turkey's Ministry of Environment and Urbanization, chief climate change envoy
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