United Nation Environment Programme (UNEP), in its Governing Council meeting considered the most pressing environmental issues as food waste and food loss, where an individual can contribute to a low carbon and resource efficient future. Therefore this year the theme of the World Environment Day (WED) is “Think. Eat. Save. Reduce Your Foodprint”. Mongolia, one of the World's fastest growing green economy has been named as global host of WED. Meaning of this year's theme is manifold. Food waste means all the resources used in the production of food are also lost. Statistics suggest that the global food production occupies 25% of all habitable land, consumes 70% of fresh water, contributes to 80% of deforestation and responsible for 30% of greenhouse gas emission. In this context, informed decision means to select foods that have less impact on our environment. As an example, we can think of taking organic food, which has less impact on environment. Another way to reduce our foodprint is to buy food locally. Local food means less transportation cost or less storage cost.
UNEP thinks that over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain. In low income countries, food waste and losses occur at early stages of food supply chain, mainly due to financial, managerial and technical constraints in harvesting techniques, storage and transportation. In high income countries, food waste and losses occur at later stages of food supply chain, mainly due to consumer behaviours. For example, in UK the single largest producer of food waste is the domestic household. On average 6.7 million tonnes of food waste, which account for 19% of all municipal solid waste produced in UK. Potato, salad, bread slice and apple are the main composition of the waste, which clearly related to people's choice of buying food. A statistics suggest that “the world could feed the entire projected population growth alone by becoming more efficient while also ensuring the survival of wild animals, birds and fish on the planet”.
In order to reduce our carbon footprint, we shall have to reduce our foodprint. Food waste has a damaging effect on the environment. When disposed of in a landfill, food waste releases methane, a critical greenhouse gas and lechate, a toxin capable of groundwater pollution. The food supply chain in UK accounts for one fifth of its carbon emissions. The production, storage and transportation require large amounts of energy. One of the regulatory requirements set up by European Union's Landfill Directive is to reduce biodegradable municipal waste gradually by 35% in 2020. In June 2009, former Environment Secretary announced the government's “War on Waste” programme. This has reduced waste by 0.13million tonnes. In addition to that different waste disposal techniques have been introduced. One of such techniques is anaerobic digestion technique, where biodegradable materials can be broken down in absence of oxygen. Another technique is the incineration of waste. Recovering the energy generated from these processes has become of great importance. Recently the level of emissions from such process has been substantially reduced by developing new technology and also by environmental permitting regulation.
Our foodprint is related to our carbon footprint. This means that foodprint is related to global climate change. Recently a European funded project “ice2sea” has developed a computer model of glaciers and ice sheets. This model suggests that melting ice would contribute to sea level rise by 4 cm and 37 cm by 2100. However, adding this to other causes of sea level rise such as expansion of ocean as temperature rises we get a figure between 16 and 69 cm by 2100. Here I would like to point out that the model does not predict on the basis of all possible scenarios rather it takes mid range possibility. What is important is that the warming will not be uniform across the globe. Therefore in addition to global projection, regional projection is required, but regional projection is highly unreliable. Looking at the big picture in front of us, we can say that the earth is gradually warming and sea level will eventually rise. Through this process of expansion, some region will feel a cooling effect. This expansion might have a causal effect on food shortage as land mass relates to food production. In order to mitigate this situation, we need to identify our “avoidable food waste and food loss” parameter and act accordingly.
Government needs to show its commitment to positive environmental action not just with words but with concrete action. As an example, in case of Mongolia, projects have been set up to enhance young people's understanding of environmental protection and a national tree planting day set up to combat desertification. In case of Bangladesh, even if we can't reduce waste immediately, we may be able to convert waste into resources through energy harnessing anaerobic digestion or incineration technology. However, reduction of waste at the source is of paramount importance. This is possible through our informed decision about food choice. We shall have to act locally, but think globally. This will surely reduce some of our transportation and storage problem. We always should remind ourselves that “Waste not, want not”.
The writer is an environmental consultant and a Fellow of the Institution of Environmental Sciences, UK.