Have you noticed that food is getting expensive? If so, you are not alone. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, world food prices have risen in all but one of the past 5 years, and in August 2011 the Food Price Index (FFPI) stood 26% higher than the same month last year. And now the bad news, this trend is here to stay.
The world’s population is forecast to rise to a peak of around 9 billion sometime in the middle of this century. That’s an increase of almost 50% since the start of the century only 11 years ago. Also, it may not feel like it, but people are getting richer. Rich people demand a better, more varied diet with more animal protein, which is an inefficient way to feed humans. For instance with grain fed cattle, it takes about 6 kilos of grain to produce one kilo of lean beef.
Meanwhile the world’s food resources are under huge pressure. Only about 18% of the land mass is agriculturally productive. The rest is made up of deserts, mountains, tundra, forests and so on. That percentage cannot easily be increased without massive environmental impact. In fact, it is declining. 70,000 square kilometers of agricultural land is lost to construction every year. That’s an area roughly twice the size of the Netherlands. All those new people need houses too.
Global warming and unsustainable cultivation methods are leading to increased desertification in many areas of the world including Africa, Asia and North America. The Sahara Desert alone is expanding at a rate of 48km per year.
Meanwhile rising sea levels are threatening huge tracts of productive land and also many population centres. A study in the April, 2007 issue of Environmentand Urbanization reports that 634 million people live in coastal areas within 30 feet (9.1 m) of sea level. The study also reported that about two thirds of the world's cities with over five million people are located in these low-lying coastal areas. Displaced city dwellers add to the pressures on agricultural land.
If that weren’t bad enough we are actually diverting productive arable land and pasture which is currently growing food, to the production of crops for biofuels. Many countries have set targets for the substitution of fossil fuels with renewable biofuels in response to peak oil and greenhouse gas emissions targets. Presently around 2% of all productive land is used for biofuel production. But if current biofuels goals are to be met, it could require between 10% and 42% of existing arable land to meet 2020 targets, which is unlikely to be politically acceptable. By the way, the variation is so wide because biofuels are often planted on pasture which has previously been considered unsuitable for growing crops, but that brings its own problems.
And if the land is under pressure, it is no use looking to the sea solve our food needs. The oceans are also under stress. 75% of the world’s fish stocks are either over exploited or at maximum sustainable exploitation levels. Some estimates say that edible fish stocks will reach total depletion by 2050 unless we alter our current rate of exploitation. And it’s not just fishing. We continue to use the sea as a dumping ground; we destroy fisheries by polluting them, extracting minerals from the sea bed and building off-shore installations and wind farms. We really can’t expect the sea to provide the extra food we will need to feed the world.
What this adds up to is that food supply is currently static or declining. In fact huge advances in agricultural productivity were made throughout the second half of the twentieth century in what is now termed the Green Revolution. The trouble is we need to repeat that over the next 40 years and many scientists doubt whether that is possible. In any case it was associated everywhere with huge environmental degradation which we could ill afford to repeat.
So with inelastic supply and a rapidly increasing demand, food prices can only go one way. For the rich, developed world this is inconvenient. We may have to spend more on food and commensurately less on other luxury items. But for a large part of the world’s population, price rises and increased competition will mean poverty and starvation. Finally globalisation has made the connection between the food on my plate and the diet of those starving masses.
Yet in spite of the rising prices and the growing shortages
of food, we waste an enormous amount.
According to the FAO we waste around one third of all the food we
produce. In the UK alone we waste 16
million tonnes of food annually.
|Onions left in the field|
· 3.7 m tonnes never leaves the farm
· 3.6 m tonnes are lost in the supply train
· 700,000 tonnes are wasted in hotels and restaurants
· This means fully half is wasted by consumers.
This is a symptom of modern living. Immediately after WWII when food was scarce the waste figure was around 2%. Even 30 years ago it was estimated to be only 6%. Part of the problem is that, in the developed world at least, although food prices are at an all time high, they are also at a historical low when measured against disposable income. In the UK the average family spends only 7% to 10% of total income on food, although the global average is around 50% and some developing countries it rises to 80%. But that is not to say that many families can afford to waste money. On average each household could save £50 per month if they cut out all food waste which should be welcome to most people.
Of course it’s not just a waste of money. The UK produces only 60% of its food and the rest is imported from all over the world, much of it by air. For instance, salad products are among the worst cases when it comes to waste. 46% of all salad ends up being wasted, and much of that is imported from Spain. The campaign group, Love Food Hate Waste, estimates that eliminating Britain’s food waste would have the same carbon impact as removing a quarter of all cars on the road.Their website offers recipes and tips designed to help consumers cut down on waste. They offer useful advice on a range of subjects from measuring individual portions, food management and how to interpret shelf-life labels.
As for restaurants, the Sustainable Restaurants Association will launch a campaign among its members to help them cut down on waste starting next month entitled Too Good To Waste. The SRA Food Waste Survey has calculated that by reducing food waste by only 20%, restaurants could save up to £1,700 per annum just on collection costs, and that’s not including the money spent on the food in the first place.
Like LFHW, the SRA web site offers advice to members on how to reduce spoilage, preparation waste and plate waste. These include everything from having your fridge properly serviced to finding uses for trimmings including potato peelings and off-cuts from meat.
And for customers, why not ask for a doggy-bag? It seems many diners in the UK are still reluctant to take food home. This is not a problem in America where even top restaurants will be glad to box up leftovers. After all, you’ve paid for it. And every penny you save is a penny that doesn’t push prices up. Every ounce of food saved has carbon savings. And in this globalised world, there really is a connection between the food you waste and the starving millions of Africa.