Think Eat and Save / Lamin Manneh (Op-Ed)

05 Jun 2013

 Women seller at Kimironko Market in Kigali (Photo: Elena Ganan/UNDP in Rwanda)

The World Environment Day is celebrated annually on 5th June by people across the globe. The day was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1972 at the Stockholm Conference on Human Environment. The purpose of this celebration is to stimulate worldwide awareness of the environment and encourage political attention and action on environmental sustainability issues.

This year’s theme for the World Environment Day celebrations is Think.Eat.Save. Reduce Your Foodprint. It’s focus is on the Save Food Initiative, which is a broad partnership including UNEP, FAO, and in support of the UN Secretary-General’s Zero Hunger Challenge, which was launched last year at the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The campaign seeks to add its authority and voice to the anti-food waste in order to galvanize widespread global, regional and national actions to reduce food loss and waste. This is inspired by the fact that about one third of all food produced worldwide gets lost or wasted in the food production and consumption systems. At the same time, 1 in every 7 people in the world go to bed hungry, 870 million are undernourished, more than 20,000 children under the age of 5 die daily from hunger and childhood stunting is a silent pandemic.

Food loss occurs mostly at the production and post-harvest stages while food waste typically takes place at the retailer and consumer end of the food supply chain. In broad terms, food losses and waste are influenced by production and processing choices, patterns and technologies, internal infrastructure and capacity, marketing chains and channels for distribution, consumer purchasing and food use practices. It is estimated that retailers and consumers in developed nations discard around 300 million tonnes annually of food that is fit for consumption. This is more than the total net food production of Sub-Saharan Africa and would be sufficient to feed the estimated 900 million people hungry in the world.

In low-income countries the problem of food losses and waste emanates from wide-ranging managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques, inadequate storage facilities, transportation, pests, processing and marketing systems. The actors in these sectors who grow food for export are also often at the mercy of over-stringent expectations of buyers who place a premium on cosmetic perfection. If markets are not accessible or market prices are too low, producers may let good products go to waste.

In Rwanda, similar to other developing nations, accurate estimations of the magnitude of food losses and waste are still lacking. In 2011, MINAGRI estimated post-harvest losses at 22% at that time. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that food is lost and wasted along the food chainwhich  contributes to household food insecurity. Although significant progress has been made in the last few years, according to the Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis (CFSVA) and Nutrition Survey 2012, the prevalence of chronic malnutrition among children under age 5 is still high at 43%. The northern and western areas bordering Lake Kivu and along the Congo Nile Crest are the most affected areas, with even higher rates of stunting.

Major stakeholders in the country have mainly concentrated on improving food production in order to address food security. The UN has been supporting the efforts by the Government of Rwanda to implement activities related to ecosystem management, soil fertility and erosion control, improved quality of water resources, biodiversity conservation and livelihood diversification which have helped to increase food production. The Government of Rwanda has also developed a strategic plan for the transformation of agriculture with an intention of increasing crop and livestock production, enhanced irrigation and water management, boast marketing, entrepreneurship and value chains, research as well as mainstreaming environment in agriculture. Increasing agricultural production and marketing of the produce is also a priority in the EDPRS II as part of rural development vision. However, one has to realize that if 1/3 of the food products are never consumed, a significant part of these scarce resources are being used in vain. Reducing losses is a much more efficient way to increase food availability, both in economic and environmental terms.

It is, therefore, with satisfaction that the One UN in Rwanda notes that the Government is also addressing food loss by constructing storage silos across the country. The UN (WFP) supported MINAGRI in training cooperatives and extension staff in post-harvest handling and storage as well with the investment in rural facilities such as drying floors, warehouses, and product quality testing kits. There are some players who are mainly concerned with re-use of food waste e.g. by producing briquettes but few are engaged in preventing post-harvest food loss. Given the high population and the increased demand of the resources available, it is paramount to ensure that we manage the food we produce in a sustainable manner without much loss and waste.

Food loss and waste is something we can all address. With relative ease and a few simple changes to our habits, we can significantly shift this paradigm. That is why this year’s campaign aims to raise global awareness and showcase solutions relevant to developed and developing countries alike. In order to prevent further waste, governments, development agencies and organisation like the UN must work together to help change people's mind-sets on waste and discourage wasteful practices by farmers, traders, supermarkets and consumers. Infrastructural and technological development in low–income countries will help reduce the amount of food that perishes after it is harvested and before it reaches the market. As for developed nations they can support fair trade and rationalize sell-by dates and other labelling systems; businesses can revise their criteria for rejecting produce; and consumers can minimize waste by buying only what they need and re-using left-over food.

In avoiding food waste, there is actually more that would be gained by it than a mere reduction in its ‘footprint’. In fact, the global food production occupies 25% of all habitable land and is responsible for 70% of fresh water consumption, 80% of deforestation, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions.

On this World Environment Day, all actors in the global food chain are urged to take responsibility for environmentally sustainable and socially equitable food systems. Although the current global population of approximately seven billion is expected to grow to nine billion by 2050, the number of hungry people need not increase. By reducing food waste, we can save money and resources, minimize environmental impacts and, most importantly, move towards a world where everyone has enough to eat.