A world that wants to reduce agricultural production in order to control climate change should first look at how much food it wastes.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimated that in 2005, one third of all food available for human consumption was wasted (food that was fit for human consumption, but was not eaten).
In industrialised countries, food gets lost when production exceeds demand. Surplus crops are sold as animal feed.
Or unattractive foods are “discarded”. For example, carrots that are not bright orange, that have a blemish, or are broken, go for livestock feed.
Fresh products can be spoilt in hot climates due to lack of transportation, storage, cooling, and markets.
Failure to comply with minimum food safety standards can lead to food losses (due to naturally occurring toxins, contaminated water, unsafe use of pesticides, or veterinary drug residues).
Poor and unhygienic handling and storage conditions, and lack of adequate temperature control, can also cause unsafe food
Poor farmers may harvest crops too early due to food deficiency or the need for cash. In this way, there is a loss of nutritional and economic food value.
Trimmings to make food more attractive are usually disposed of.
Errors during processing or packaging often lead to food being discarded.
Food on retail display may reach its “sell-by” date before being sold, and is wasted.
There are food losses in wholesale and retail markets in developing countries, which are often small, overcrowded, unsanitary and lacking cooling equipment.
Poverty and limited household income make it unacceptable to waste food in developing countries.
But one of the most important areas for food waste is at the consumption level in rich countries.
For example, restaurants serve buffets at fixed prices, which encourages people to fill their plates with more food than they can actually eat. Retail stores offer “one for free” bargains. Both lead to waste.
FAO calculations indicated that consumers are responsible for only 8% of food waste, but it could be as much as 19%, say Monika van den Bos Verma and colleagues from Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands.
They found that once consumer affluence reaches a spending threshold of approximately €6 per person per day, consumer food waste starts to arise.
Measures to reduce food waste are likely to become as important as measures to control climate change, and they will need to be introduced in tandem.
One of the reasons why food waste will become more important than ever is that plant-based foods favoured in climate mitigation plans are more susceptible to waste.
The FAO estimated food loss and waste in the Near East and North Africa region at only 13% of meats, 14-19% of grains, 16% of oilseeds and pulses, 18% of dairy products, 26% of roots and tubers, 28% of fish and seafood, and 45% of fruits and vegetables.
Questions of food waste, climate mitigation, and agricultural production will become more urgent very quickly, if Covid-19 is as catastrophic as feared for millions who are already hanging by a thread, people who can only eat if they earn a wage, and whose savings have been decimated by lockdowns and global economic recession.
Covid-19 could push them over the edge.
The World Food Programme says the number of people facing acute food insecurity stands to rise to 265 million this year, from 135m in 2019, due to Covid-19.
The United Nations World Food Programme is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, and its Executive Director David Beasley, UN World Food Programme (WFP) recently told the UN Security Council we are on the brink of a hunger pandemic, to add to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before Covid-19 became an issue, he had warned 2020 would bring the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
It is caused by wars in Syria and Yemen, deepening crises in places like South Sudan, Burkina Faso and the Central Sahel.
Desert locust swarms in Africa; natural disasters; changing weather patterns; economic crisis in Lebanon affecting millions of Syrian refugees; hunger in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Ethiopia; add up to a perfect storm, said Beasley.
Famine was a very real and dangerous possibility for millions in conflict-scarred nations.
The current WFP numbers are that 821m go to bed hungry every night, and a further 135m face crisis levels of hunger or worse. Covid-19 could push an additional 130m to the brink of starvation.
Beasley urged the UN Security Council Council to help by seeking a global ceasefire in conflicts, to allow food be moved from from where it is produced to where it is needed.
“We could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months,” he warned.
Climate change is of course one of the causes of this global predicament.
It is a cause of world hunger, and it makes solving it harder.
The unusual proliferation of droughts worldwide at the moment illustrates the effect of climate change.
Some parts of New Zealand, such as Hawke’s Bay, have entered their seventh month of below-normal rainfall, which has reduced by 3% (compared to normal April levels), the milk production in the world’s number one dairy exporting country.
Nearer home, much of central Europe has been hit by drought, damaging output of high-productivity agricultural areas.
Leading grain exporter Ukraine depends on suitable weather for the rest of the season to save its crops, with yield forecasts already officially reduced by 20%.
Moldova faces major crop losses.
Polish food prices will increase this year by 5.2%, mostly due to drought.
The Czech Republic is enduring its worst drought in 500 years.
Drought has hit Italy’s South, one of its main supply areas for pasta wheat, and farmers there decided not to transplant tomatoes.
Vietnam and Cuba are both hit by drought, and the lack of rain is the worst in 50 years in northeast Argentina.