Food Waste and Overeating: joint causes of a broken food system
When it comes to food, we make on average 200 decisions every day, researchers say.
These decisions may include what, where, how often, why, from whom to buy food, but also quantity, quality, origin, and impact of our food choices. Just like drops of water that, consistently after decades, can modify rocks, also our food choices, reiterated on a daily basis and replicated for almost 8 billion people, can shape our current food system. For better or worse.
In fact, the power for consumers to literally vote with their forks means that they can make their food decisions in support of individual health, longevity, regenerative practices, biodiversity, high nutritional values, resource preservation, small farmers, and women empowerment. Or not.
Having a closer look at the current state of the world today, it seems that the world population has been (consciously or unconsciously) choosing the “not” side. There are in fact several paradoxes, dysfunctions, and non-senses characterizing food patterns and scenarios within our food system. In particular, food waste and the current “obesity epidemics,” as warned by the FAO, represent two clear pieces of evidence of the fact that, due to our food choices, are losing both our health and our planet. Unveiling the complexities behind these current dysfunctions also means recognizing the deep and hidden interconnections that make apparently separated aspects connected. Being in the middle of Climate Week and approaching the International Day of Awareness on Food Loss and Waste provides the right occasion to unveil these interdependencies, spotlighting the multiple factors that alter and influence our food choices and that inevitably connect food waste with overeating and climate change.
I am deeply thankful to Silvia Lisciani, a researcher at CREA Research Centre for Food and Nutrition of Rome, who gave this article the depth and meticulous approach that is typical of the scientific world.
THE COMPLEX MATRIX BEHIND FOOD CHOICES: WHY DO WE THROW FOOD AWAY?
It is not true that we buy food for basic survival, at least not in most cases and not in many parts of the world. Food trends alter our perceptions, and increasing hectic lifestyles induce the world population to eat more and worse. We eat to find emotional and psychological relief, to overcome anxiety, stress, or boredom; we buy food convinced by appealing advertisements, given the way food is displayed in stores, according to price, proximity and accessibility to markets. Our food choices can be dictated by cultural pressures and religious drivers, not only by individual preferences. Equally, they can be influenced by environmental factors, social dimensions, psychological mechanisms, and educational and communication strategies.
All these elements create a dangerous distance between man and food, making us even more susceptible to waste.
Differently from Food Loss, which occurs in the fields and before food reaches the retail level, food waste is in fact the final segment of the food supply chain — the one that includes retail, restaurant services, and consumers. It is the final phase of the food supply chain the most observed and studied by researchers because it is precisely from there where the most food is thrown away.
According to the Food Waste Index Report 2021, 931 million tons of food (17 percent of the total global food production) was wasted globally in 2019, with 61% of that coming from households. In terms of planetary boundaries, this means that 3.3 Gtonnes of CO2 equivalent, 250 km3 of water (three times the volume of Lake Geneva), and 1.4 billion hectares of land (almost 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land area) have been emitted and used to produce food that will never be eaten. With this data, it is easy to understand why food waste is increasingly recognized as one of the most critical ecological and ethical challenges facing humanity. It is also a severe social and economic issue. In fact, food waste also represents an incredible waste of money. In terms of resource costs ($1 trillion losses per year for wasted labor, wasted material resources for food production), environmental costs ($700 billion per year for wasted carbon, land, and water), and social costs ($900 billion per year for higher healthcare costs and lost productivity from individuals weakened by nutritional deficiency and food insecurity).
What are the reasons behind waste?
The tendency to throw away food varies mainly based on demographic and economic characteristics, such as household income, the age of the consumer and family members, the level of education, and the number of people living in the home. However, there are also frequent common attitude traits: especially in the Western world, where consumers throw food away by forgetfulness, by leaving food in their fridge for too long, by lack of creativity in managing and reusing leftovers, by inadequate meal and food shopping planning, by laziness, or the tendency of preparing and serving too much food. These are all behaviors that are favored by the tendency of supermarkets and retail stores to sell large packages of products, often with advantageous prices such as to favor the purchase of unnecessary quantities.
THE HIDDEN SIDE OF FOOD WASTE: OVEREATING
Besides food waste, another plague is affecting the modern food systems: its increasing inability to provide optimal and healthy nutrition for everyone, evidenced by the skyrocketing cases of overnutrition — the excessive intake of nutrients and one of the three burdens of malnutrition.
The fact that the world is producing and consuming more food than what is required for human consumption is now well-known in high-income countries. Studies reveal that the daily calorie intake for countries like the USA, Canada, and Europe is over 3000 kcal /day/per capita, 30% higher than the real nutritional requirement for the urban population. Equally, over the past four decades, the global prevalence of obesity has nearly tripled and continues to increase, affecting also low and middle income countries due to the spread of junk foods rich in sugar, salt, and fat in all regions of the world.
What is the connection with food waste?
Although the current definition of food waste does not include overnutrition, several studies have been supporting the idea that overnutrition should be accounted for as a form of waste.
In this sense, there are several common traits:
- Both overnutrition and waste are exacerbated by the easy availability and purchase of food.
- Both overnutrition and waste rely on unnecessary quantities of food: data reveal that obese people consume 18% more food than those following a standard diet.
- Both overnutrition and waste worsen our environmental footprint on Earth: data released by a recent study on overnutrition in Italy highlights that “the total GHG emissions of overnutrition in Italy are estimated at 6.15 Mt of CO2-eq per year” compared to the average 1.75 t CO2-eq from normal-weight person’s food-related emissions. According to this study, obese and overweight adults would be responsible for emitting + 24% and +12% CO2-eq, respectively.
Given these premises, since 2016 a new indicator has been developed by researchers: the Metabolic Food Waste, which calculated in kg the excess of food consumed compared to physiological needs and its impact in terms of carbon, water, and land footprint to support the thesis that it should be considered as a form of food waste. According to these studies, “the overall impact of MFW (tons of food) in the world corresponds to 140.7 million tons associated with overweight and obesity. Between the different regions, the EU is responsible for the greatest amount of MFW(tons of food) volume (39.2 million tons), followed by NAO [North America and Oceania] (32.5 million tons). In terms of ecological impact, EU and NAO displayed the highest values for all three MFW footprints, about 14 times more than [Sub-Saharan Africa] SSA.”
IMPLEMENTING METHODOLOGIES FOR INTEGRAL ECOLOGY: CONNECTING NUTRITIONAL, FOOD & CLIMATE LITERACY
Around the world, consumers seem to have lost the (natural) tendency to preserve their health through their food choices and have forgotten their ancient relationship with the natural ecosystem. The growing concerns about body obsession, eating disorders, obesity, and massive increase in food waste are all clear signals of fragmentation and hyperspecialization of different dimensions of life at the expense of integral ecological visions.
Embracing an integral ecological approach means regaining our ability to see wellbeing holistically, in all its complexity and interrelation, including psychological, physical, individual, collective, and environmental wellbeing. This would require a restart of awareness and education.
It is due to the current lack of awareness that consumers are becoming increasingly unable to read and understand food labels, resist marketing and advertising strategies, choose and buy food responsibly and consciously, and minimize their impact on planetary boundaries. Increasing awareness of the nutritional values of single foods is important but not sufficient: consumers have to be reconnected with food as a whole system.
This would require combining nutritional literacy, which is crucial to provide individuals the ability to obtain, process, and understand the nutritional information to make appropriate dietary decisions with climate literacy, environmental literacy, and food literacy, which are crucial to grow healthier communities and lead consumers towards better food choices if combined together.
In concrete terms, this means starting again from schools teaching children, parents, and teachers the values behind food and its regenerative power; rethinking school canteens as places for sharing, creativity, and conviviality, because food is one of the oldest forms of healing for the soul and the body; training cooks in school canteens, hospitals, and all foodservice operators so that they can become food ambassadors, protectors, and guardians of human health and the planet; training youth, adults, entrepreneurs and consumers to systemic thinking, also through in-the-field experiences to understand the real implications of food waste to let them become active (not passive) changemakers.
These are all aspects that mankind originally knew and need to be reinstalled again, as the Mediterranean Diet & lifestyle perfectly demonstrates: when approached holistically, food represents a unique form of regeneration for the planet, its people, and economies.
This would require collective efforts, global and local solutions, and active involvement of all the actors in the food system: farmers, manufacturers, producers, retailers, and consumers, as well as policymakers, researchers, food banks, and other NGOs. The 24-hours Marathon on Food Loss & Waste that the Future Food Institute is organizing together with FAO, UNEP, and Food for Soul, is designed to restore the power of togetherness for collective wellbeing by sharing lessons and best practices and accelerate the path towards integral ecology all over the world.
After all, building regenerative and resilient food systems starts by empowering individuals and enabling them to vote for a safer and healthier world. With their forks.
Silvia Lisciani is a researcher at the CREA Research Center for Food and Nutrition in Rome. The focus of her activity is the study of the composition of foods in relation to the conditions and place of growth, or after different cooking methods. She is currently involved in national and international research projects dedicated to products of plant origin. Her interests also extend to human nutrition and training programs for a healthy and sustainable diet.
CREA is the most important Italian research center on agri-food. It boasts 12 offices scattered throughout Italy which are dedicated to various agri-food sectors.
The Future Food Institute is an international social enterprise and the cornerstone of the Future Food Ecosystem, a collection of research labs, partnerships, initiatives, platforms, networks, entrepreneurial projects and academic programs, aiming to build a more equitable world, grounded in integral ecological regeneration, through enlightening a world-class breed of innovators, boosting entrepreneurial potential, and improving agri-food expertise and tradition.
Future food advocates for positive change through initiatives in Waste & Circular Systems, Water Safety & Security, Climate, Earth Regeneration, Mediterranean Foodscape, Nutrition for All, Humana Communitas, and Cities of the Future as we catalyze progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).