We throw away more than 12 million tonnes of food every year in Germany alone. And more than half of this waste is generated in private households. To be more precise, it is 75 kg per capita that we waste every year, plus the food waste in harvesting, processing, distribution or trade.
This puts Germany at the top of the list of the biggest food wasters among other countries of the Global North. In terms of total quantity, China, the USA, India and Japan are ahead of Germany. If one calculates the quantities per inhabitant, Australia scores extremely badly with over 100 kg per capita and year.
The damage caused by food waste is enormous. About one trillion US dollars in costs are incurred annually by food that is thrown away – and this is only the financial damage. The environment, natural resources and people also suffer from this throwaway culture. But how do such quantities of edible waste occur in the first place?
What are the reasons for food waste?
Let’s first look at food waste in the private sector. Here, a distinction is usually made between two types of waste – the avoidable and the unavoidable. Or the edible and the inedible food. For example, banana peels, coffee grounds, cleaning residues or animal bones are considered inedible. However, the avoidable makes up the larger part of our personal waste. Avoidable means that food is thrown away that would still be edible or has not been eaten in time.
Besides mold, bruises or wrinkled skin, too large portions and incorrectly planned grocery hauls are often the cause of food being thrown away. The biggest reason though for private individuals to throw edible food into the bin is the best-before date, which is still regarded as a red line that must not be exceeded under any circumstances. It is merely an indicator of how long the original quality of a product is guaranteed in a sealed container if it is stored properly. However, many food products are still edible days and weeks later. Therefore, it is better to rely on your own senses (does something smell funny, is mould visible, does it taste sour) than to throw away edible food just because of the best-before date.
Edible goods are not only wasted in households though; organic waste also accumulates along the value chain. Losses can already occur during harvesting due to pest infestation or bad weather. Waste is also produced during transport, storage or further processing. The closer the product moves from production to the end consumer, the more the losses increase – and the potential to avoid them. Especially in (wholesale) trade, 90 % of food waste could be avoided. This is because products are not usually sorted out because they are infested with pests or have spoiled. The main reason is the appearance of the goods and the demands of the customers. Fruit and vegetables in particular are mercilessly sorted out if they no longer look fresh and crisp or meet certain standards of beauty. That is why you will have a hard time finding straight bananas, crooked cucumbers or wrinkled apples in your local supermarket.
Impact of food waste on the environment, resources and supply
The fact that so much food is indirectly produced for the bin has many negative consequences. In general, of course, it is completely absurd that we throw away so much edible food while millions of people around the world are still starving. But what is even worse is that the overproduction of food that is not even consumed also indirectly contributes to food shortages elsewhere. As the German non-profit aid-agency Welthungerhilfe explains, important resources such as energy, water and arable land are lost through the production of food that later ends up in landfill. The less arable land available, the more expensive food prices are becoming. This hits people in the Global South particularly hard, making it more difficult for them to access food.
In addition, agriculture is a major factor in climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, food production accounts for 31% of all greenhouse gases emitted worldwide. These in turn promote global warming and thus the more frequent occurrence of droughts, floods and other extreme weather events, which have a lasting impact on agriculture. These are particularly noticeable in the countries of the Global South, where they cause crop failures and supply shortages.
We could also talk about water or energy here. But to cut a long story short: a waste of food is always a waste of important resources, which in turn are lacking elsewhere and also fuel climate change.
What is the situation in Ghana?
Finally, we would like to take a look at the way food is handled in Ghana. In a previous blog post, we talked about the export of our food “waste”. For example, chicken meat components, which are hardly used in Europe, are transported to Ghana and other African countries. This leads to a flooding of the local market with cheap, subsidized products from abroad. Local poultry suppliers cannot keep up with these prices and are visibly losing their market share.
But what about the discarding of food in Ghana?
In Ghana, too, a lot of food ends up in landfill. The Ghanaian NGO “Food for all Africa” even assumes that up to 45% of all food in the country is thrown away. However, only a very small proportion of this is due to consumer behaviour. Most of the waste is caused by incorrect storage, poor transport and the lack of sufficient refrigeration along the value chain. In addition, waste is often produced during harvesting because products do not grow properly, are attacked by pests or die in periods of drought.
Some organizations in Ghana are trying to counteract this problem and recycle the waste that has already been produced. This is also the case with “Food for all Africa” and its founder Amoo Addo. For years, he has been trying to bring unwanted or leftover food from restaurants, shops or markets to orphanages, schools or communities in need. Today, the NGO is the first large food bank in Ghana. Other companies are working, for example, on a better collection system for organic waste so that it can be fully processed and reused. Because it contains many nutrients, it is excellent as fertilizer and could also help farmers achieve better harvests.
One problem – many causes
Food waste is therefore not only a problem of the Global North, but can have very different causes. Especially in the case of waste by end consumers, we can do a lot to reduce it and thus not only protect the environment but also the livelihoods of other people. What exactly each and every one of us can do, will be the subject of our next blog post. Until then, maybe take a look for yourself: how much organic waste do you produce every day and what of it could you perhaps avoid?