At school, it is not uncommon to see stacks of unfinished lunch boxes piled up in rubbish bins; at home, there are always remnants of dinner that have to be thrown away because you just can’t seem to finish it; in supermarkets, huge quantities of expired but still edible food are discarded daily. In Hong Kong alone, 3,200 tonnes of food are sent to landfills every day, which is equivalent to 120 double decker buses. Internationally, more than a third of all food produced goes to waste.
To combat the global food waste problem, international cooperation is needed. On the 27th of September, world leaders who gathered at the United Nations headquarters to talk about sustainable development were surprised with a special lunch menu. The meal that they were going to eat was composed of food that would have otherwise ended up in garbage bins and landfills. This innovative vegetarian menu was designed to emphasize the overwhelming waste in our diets and its role in causing climate change and global hunger problems.
The starter, a “Landfill Salad”, was made from unwanted vegetable scraps and outer leaves salvaged from the waste of big food producers. The main course was a vegetable burger made of pulp leftover from juicing. The burger also came with fries created from starchy corn that would typically be used to feed farm animals.
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon regarded the lunch as a success as it demonstrated how food waste was an often overlooked aspect of climate change. “Food production and agriculture contribute as much to climate change as transportation,” he said. The connection between food waste and climate change has always been missing from policy discussions and public conversation, when it should have received much more attention.
In an attempt to understand how the food you are eating now currently contributes to worsening climate change, we have to understand how it is made and delivered to us.
Agricultural activities such as growing rice and rearing cattle produce carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. To feed our growing population, agricultural activities will increase, releasing more carbon dioxide through cattle breathing and burning of organic waste and also methane when cattle digest their foods.
A lot of the food you eat comes from around the world – sirloin steak from New Zealand, rice from Thailand, apples from Fuji, for example – and it takes a lot of transportation for the food to be delivered into your hands. The transportation process uses cars, planes and cargo ships, and emits large amounts of carbon dioxide, causing global warming.
And yet more than one billion tonnes of edible food each year goes to waste. In landfills, when food decomposes, the process emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more powerful than CO2, directly causing global warming. This seems to be a really big environmental cost to pay for food from which we derive little to no use.
It is easy to come to a conclusion that by reducing the amounts of food that ends up in landfills and minimising greenhouse gas emissions, the disastrous effects of global warming can be reduced.
When we were young, we were taught to treasure our food. There is a Chinese idiom that youngsters have to learn by heart that says: “Each and every grain of rice in your bowl is the fruit of the toiling farmers.” We do not waste food because we do not want the farmers’ hard work to go to waste. As global warming becomes a more pressing issue, we realise that cherishing food is even more important than ever before.
We all have the power to save food. As local secondary school students, we can start small. Start by eating what you already have in your fridge. Make shopping lists and stick to them – don’t spend on unnecessary items you might not eat. Be aware of the portion sizes while cooking, and ask for smaller portions at restaurants if you know you won’t finish. Save the leftovers and eat them later. By taking these small steps, we can already contribute to food waste reduction while saving time and money. It's a win-win situation.