To Feed a Hungry Planet: Waste Not, Want Not

Global Food Wastage
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According to Oxfam International, every night 1 in 7 people go to bed hungry-that’s almost 1 billion people worldwide. People are hungry not because there isn’t enough food produced but because our food system is broken. In fact, 80% of the world’s hungry are directly involved in food production. We can address this hunger if we support small-scale food producers, tackle climate change and reduce food wastage. Image courtesy-NEPAD

“It is estimated that 30-50% of all food produced on the planet is lost before reaching the human stomach.”

~Dr.Tim Fox , Head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers~

The global population is estimated to reach 9.5 billion by 2075, which means there will be more mouths to feed with shrinking resources. As of now, our greatest challenge is to ensure that the sustainable food resources are available to feed the growing population. According to a report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, we produce 4 billion metric tonnes of food per annum and 30-50% of it is wasted due to mismanagement in harvesting, storage, transportation, market and consumer wastage. The focus now is on sustainable way to reduce this wastage and meet our future food demands.


The Institution of Mechanical Engineers identified 3 emerging populations across the world, and their relation to food wastage.

Developed economies such as Europe and America that have stable or declining populations that are increasing in age. Here the farming practices, infrastructure, transport storage and processing facilities are well managed, but this also ensures a larger proportion of the food produced reaches the market. The wastage primarily happens at the market and consumer levels, where large quantities of perfectly edible food are outright rejected by retailers if they feel the food standards do not conform to current consumer preferences. Globally 1.6 million tonnes of food is wasted this way. The wastage can also happen at the consumer level where they buy large quantities of perishable foods that goes wasted. It is estimated that about 30-50% of what has been bought is thrown away by the consumer.

Developing nations that are industrializing rapidly like China, who have decelerating rate of population with better standards of living and age profile.Here the wastage tends to occur at the regional and national infrastructural level. In China, the rice loss figure is about 45% and in a less developed nation as Vietnam, it almost amounts to 80% of the production.

Third world and developing economies that are beginning to industrialize, like Africa with high population growth rates and having young age profile. Here the wastage tends to occur primarily at the farmer produce level. Poor harvesting, bad transportation facilities and poor infrastructure means that the produce is inappropriately handled and stored under undesirable farm conditions.


With growing trends in population, that shows hardly any signs of slowing down, the challenge of feeding this many people needs commitment and a resolute stand on the part of  governments and global communities on ways to thwart unimpended food wastage. To find solutions will require engineers to share their engineering practices widely and provide innovative solutions along with scientists and agriculturists.

There will also be the challenge of dealing with a global shift in food consumption, from grain based diets to substantial consumption of animal products, as nations advance economically. Astute agricultural practices along with application of appropriate fertilizers and latest advancements in crop management techniques will yield higher quality of yields. Several nations in the sub Saharan region have become self sufficient in food production through through an ecologically sound Green Revolution based on science and engineering.

Challenges to food production:

Though 3rd world nations in the Sub Saharan regions and elsewhere have increased their agricultural productivity to feed its hungry populations, there are several challenges that could impede its progress:

  • Decreasing area of land available due to environmental degradation, climatic changes, urbanisation, transport, industrial and personal needs.
  • Amount of water available will be reduced due to increased competition due to urban and industrial development and uncertain rainfall.
  • Rising energy costs of fuels used in production of fertilizers and pesticides
  • Problems in acquiring adequate labour in agriculture.

Although increased food production may seem as the most plausible alternative,to feeding a growing population, experts are of the opinion that a range of parallel approaches like mitigating the huge amounts of food that is wasted on a global scale will to an extent reduce their potential impact and meet the growing demand for food.

The report therefore seeks focus on key factors that contribute to the unacceptable levels of food wastage and its wider implications and practical solutions.


To feed the 7.5 billion population today the global food supply system is a complex mechanism that includes a range of expertise from farmers, processors, logistic experts,traders who are supported by engineers,technologists and scientists.All work towards producing perishable products and delivering it in the best condition to the public. The food that they produce both animal and vegetable product total to about 4 billion tonnes of edible product every year. The flip side is that in doing so they utilising large quantities of finite resources. Wasting food therefore results in unhindered exhaustion of these resources like :

Land for cultivation which uses about 4.9 Gha of 14.8 Gha of land surface area available on the planet. Interestingly the study finds that animal based agricultural practice would require more land area than a grain based one.

Water for Irrigation : Currently agriculture depends mostly on natural rainfall, water bodies or engineered means via irrigation, hydroponics for cultivation of food. Currently according to the report an estimated 3.8 trillion m3 of water are being drawn for human use each year, which is equivalent to 1.5 billion Olympic sized swimming pools. 70% of this water is consumed by the agricultural sector. In most countries the Irrigation system and management is highly flawed and results in major water resource wastage. In countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and India, self sufficiency programmes have subsidised the cost of energy for irrigation, sometimes even providing free energy. This resulted in over application and gross neglect and water wastage. Processing too require huge amounts of water. Water disputes have arisen between communities and nations in recent years on account of imbalances in human consumption. And will definitely be a major cause of tension considering its precious resource status.


As per the report, it takes an average input of 7-10 calories of energy to produce one calori of food. Most of this energy comes from fossil fuels, which is being attributed to potential global warming and climate change. 1 calorie of Grain based food requires 3 calories of energy and 1 calorie of grain fed beef requires 35 calories of energy. This has grave implications if we see a global trend moving towards high meat content.


  • In India 21 Million tonnes of wheat is wasted each year due to inadequate storage and distribution systems.
  • Gross wastage of food due to inadequate storage, transportation etc, especially in developing economies also results in wastage of precious land, energy and water resources.About 550 billion m3 of water is wasted globally in growing crops that never reaches the consumer.
  • In developed countries logistics and storage infrastructure are impeccable however it is the behavioural characteristics of the consumer that leads to wastage. Most often large quantities of edible fruits and vegetables are rejected by retailers if it does not match up to the current marketing trends on food consumption.
  • It is in the most ‘advanced’ and affluent societies where the largest quantities of food are wasted at the consumer end. In the UK alone, about 7 million tonnes of perfectly edible food worth 10.2 billion pounds are thrown away from homes every year.
  • In the former Soviet Republics of Eastern Europe wastage rates remain high, with Ukraine typical of the region at 25–50% losses.
  • Many less-developed nations are located in the warmer, hotter regions of the world, such as India and Africa where post harvest losses of fruit and vegetables can range between 35–50% annually.
Global food waste infographics
Food waste is a major worldwide problem. Image credit-Door to Door Organics


The challenges that face us as far as providing imporved nutrition standards with shifting dietary prefereces for a rising world population are manifold. Expert Engineers, scientists and agriculturalists will have to work in collaboration with their technical know how and system that will assist increase in food production but their success will be dependent on the availability and affordability of sustainable resources.

As seen in the report the primary cause of food and resource wastage is :

  • Inadequate Engineering & Agricultural knowledge
  • Poor management skills
  • Bad Infrastructure like electricity,potable water
  • Poorly designed storage and transport facilities
  • Commercial practice of retailers
  • Consumer food behavioural aspects


In developed economies existing infrastructure and transport needs to be updated. Education,training and management systems need to be installed and applied in order to impart the technical know how on reduction in wastage. With the global economic crisis, the preferential market and consumer behaviour of drastically rejecting perfectly edible food has been seen as economically unviable. Governments should proactively pursue food policy initiatives that disuade retailers and consumers from operating this way.

In developing economies like Brazil, Chile, China, rapid development and infrastructure improvement has enabled them to produce and transport their foods successfully to their destinations. All this needs to be supported by education training and management systems to ensure highest level of effectiveness and avoid the mistakes of the developed nations.

In less developed countries like the Sub Saharan Africa and South East Asia, initial stages of food production like harvesting, handling, storage and transport still needs attention. Better infrastructure and transport as well as good storage facilities are the need of the hour. Knowledge transfer of technical know how to the producers about their crops via training and educational programmes will drastically improve a farmer’s ability to bring his crop to the market in a saleable condition.Politicians and regulators will have to put stringent measures in place as far as sanitary/phytosanitary controls are concerned.

Financial institutions like the World Bank, IFC, etc need to enable improved systems and finance innovation to help finance significant investments in education, infrastructure development, energy management and distribution systems in these countries to improve food production and reduce wastage.


According to Door to Door Organics, while you may not be able to reduce food lost during production, you can certainly reduce food waste at home. To reduce personal level of food waste some suggestions:

  • Plan out meals and make shopping lists to determine what you actually need for the week.
  • Buy in quantities you can realistically use. Avoid impulse buys.
  • Don’t throw out fruits and vegetables with aesthetic-only blemishes.Use-by-dates are for best quality, and not “safety dates”, according to the USFDA.
  • “Re-use” your leftovers by eating them for lunch the next day. If your food does go bad, compost it to avoid sending it to the landfill.


As the report suggests, food wastage is reaching alarming proportions, and considering that almost 870 million people suffer from Chronic malnourishment globally it is a shame that food wastage happens unhindered for want of better management measures. Considering the large scale challenges before us, it is necessary to adopt a global systems oriented approach to build resilience and improve sustainability. This will require inter disciplinary and multidisciplinary collaborative approach. One way of dealing with it is to reduce its creation depending upon the demand. Consumers can help in this regard, by adopting few simple measures as planning while shopping for food, and proper knowledge about storage of food.

Through innovative initiatives such as Cambio Verde  farmers can sell their surplus goods in exchange for recycleable materials collected.

Every night 1 in 7 people go to bed hungry that’s almost 1 billion people worldwide. People are hungry not because there isn’t enough food produced but because our food system is broken. In fact, 80% of the world’s hungry are directly involved in food production. We can address this hunger if we support small-scale food producerstackle climate change and reduce food wastage .

The Big Food Wasters
The Big Food Wasters. Image credit- Next Generation Foods
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