The food waste debate has gone mainstream. People at every level from individual consumers to national governments are beginning to pay attention to the issues which lead to a third of food produced for human consumption being wasted every year. However, there is one side to the story that is often overlooked: the impact of food waste in the Global South.
Food waste narrative in Europe and the North
Generally speaking, the dominant food waste narrative emphasises how people in Europe, North America and throughout wealthy communities worldwide, have become disconnected from the realities of the food supply chain. With this disconnect, consumers have come to expect access to an unbroken supply of a complete range of fruits, vegetables and other food, regardless of seasonality.
This demand has resulted in enormous supermarkets with stringent rules on fruit and vegetable aesthetics, leading to large quantities of all kinds of edible food being discarded throughout the supply chain. Constant deals, ever-evolving marketing techniques and overabundant choice, encourage us to buy more than we can eat, resulting in large quantities being thrown away. Labelling such as ‘best before’ dates add to the confusion, even though they have no relevance to how safe the food is. As a consequence, consumers in rich countries end up wasting almost as much food every year as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.
It’s a narrative that emphasises greed and profligacy, both that of consumers and of the supermarkets themselves, as the causative factor. However, it’s not the complete picture of global waste and overabundance isn’t always the problem.
While food waste is indeed a problem in rich nations, the Food and Agricultural Organization has found that industrialised and developing countries actually waste about the same quantity of food every year – 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively.
One key difference is that the average UK resident, cut off as they are from the supply chain that puts food on their table, doesn’t directly engage with the consequences of food waste. In a poorer country however, the impact is far more direct. Food loss is thought to reduce income by at least 15% for 470 million smallholder farmers and other food production stakeholders worldwide, many of whom constitute part of the 1.2 billion people who are food insecure. In addition, such losses frequently result in higher prices for poor consumers.
When Katie Alesbury first came to Nicaragua in 2013 to work as a volunteer teacher, she could see this impact right away. “I was living in a small community where a lot of people lived on minimal resources,” she explains. “It was while I was there, just casually walking through the streets I noticed that a lot of fresh produce was being wasted.”
Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, and 20% of the population do not get enough to eat. In a country that faces such food poverty, it seems ludicrous that so much food is being wasted. After discussing the matter with local friends, and talking to the vendors themselves, Katie decided to set up Eat United (Comamos Juntos), the country’s first organised food rescue initiative.
Having settled in Nicaragua’s sprawling capital, Managua, the team began building relationships with vendors at Mercado Mayoreo, the biggest wholesale market in the city. Every week a team of volunteers visits the market, collecting as many wasted fruits and vegetables as they can and delivering them to some of the city’s most at-risk communities. As the project progressed, Katie began to fully appreciate the issues at hand.
“Of course the vendors are concerned about waste,” she says. “However, given the limited options for improved storage, they just tend to view food wastage as part of the business.”
Infrastructure: Storage, refrigeration and transport
While in higher income countries the blame for food waste falls largely on consumers, who each throw away between 95-115 kg of food every year, in places like Nicaragua, the underlying problem is the available infrastructure. Insufficient storage and lack of refrigeration mean that getting food from the farm to the fork can be an arduous process. “The markets here are open-air, so the food is basically open to the elements,” Katie explains. “As you can imagine, carrots stored in a humid sack at 30°C will tend to go off much faster than carrots stored in an air conditioned supermarket.”
In fact, some of the most significant losses occur before the food gets anywhere near the markets. Shortcomings in the harvesting and distribution stages in developing countries mean that a lot of fruit and vegetables decay in fields before they’ve even been collected, or while they are being transported to their destination. One report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimates that if countries with developing economies and technological infrastructure, possessed the same refrigeration facilities as those with advanced and integrated infrastructure, approximately a quarter of their food wastage would be prevented.
One extreme example is India, which is the world’s largest banana producer, and yet controls just 0.3% of the global banana market. This is largely because, as it stands, less than 0.4% of the country’s fresh produce is kept refrigerated during transportation, compared to over 90% in the UK.
Back in Managua, poorly developed distribution networks and infrastructure within the city itself further compound its chronic food insecurity. Most of the poorest neighbourhoods are on the outskirts of the city, where the inhabitants must rely on corner stores, or ‘pulperias’, which do not tend to stock fresh produce. In these parts of town, any land available for growing food is often unsuitable due to contamination with pollutants.
Eat United’s ‘family’ of vendors, volunteers and community leaders are making headway, but Katie is keen to emphasise the scale of the situation: “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Eat United works with just one section of the Mercado Mayoreo, and with this we can share over 2,500 kg of food per month, which is enough for over 5,000 meals.” Even after their efforts, there are dozens more vendors who are willing to donate food, and several similarly sized markets across the city. There’s simply too much waste for them to handle.
Clearly Nicaragua’s food insecurity isn’t due to a lack of food being produced, it’s just not getting to where it needs to be. This is a story that plays out all over the world.
With about one in four people affected, sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment. Despite this, up to 40% of the food it produces is wasted, again, largely due to poor harvesting practices and a lack of refrigerated storage.
But perhaps there is not enough emphasis given to the role industrialised nations play in contributing to food waste in the Global South. In Kenya, French bean producers have claimed that they discard up to 35% of their crop because of stringent EU standards regarding size, shape and colour. Overall, an estimated 20% of initial food production is lost when products do not meet the stringent grading requirements of the industrialised countries they are bound for.
Ultimately, reducing waste worldwide on a really large scale requires investment in technology and infrastructure for many countries. If this was achieved, the workload for organisations like Eat United would be cut considerably, and there would be huge benefits for developing economies. Improving the handling of bananas in India, for example, could increase their exports by a factor of 60, generating thousands of jobs and producing untold benefits for farmers across the country. For poor countries like Nicaragua, such investment can seem out of reach, but the ultimate benefits would far outstrip the costs.
Nicaragua’s problems represent just one microcosm of waste in the Global South but many of its issues are universal. Organisations like Eat United are not only alerting the world to the gravity of the situation, they are also taking direct action to redirect food destined for the bin into the bellies of hungry people.
As the human population increases, so does the strain on the planet’s resources. It is therefore fundamental to look at the efficiency of global food systems, making sure that emphasis is placed in the correct places. So before we put pressure on countries to increase food output, understanding and supporting the elimination of these major wastage issues, feels like the first part of this complicated puzzle.
Eat United aims to expand distribution within Managua, and in the long term hopes that their methods can be used in other cities in Nicaragua and the Global South. They need international volunteers and interns to facilitate this growth. If you are interested in getting involved, visit www.comamosjuntos.org or email [email protected] for more information.
Photographs: Richard Leonardi and Eat United