In Singapore, the average household throws away almost SGD170 worth of food and drink every year. About 85% of Singaporean households do not manage to consume food before the best before date. Of the total waste produced in Singapore each year, 10% is food waste, weighing more than 790,000 tonnes last year – i.e. equivalent to two bowls of rice per person a day.

These statistics come from a survey conducted by the appliance maker Electrolux and were released on World Food Day on 16 October 2017, as part of an initiative called #HappyPlateSG, which aimed to raise awareness on food waste. Individuals between the ages of 18 and 65, across 1,000 households were polled in the survey.

Yet, these statistics are not exclusive to Singapore, intensive production and consumption has increased the availability of food but also brought about land degradation, climate change, water scarcity and an obesity epidemic.

The relationship between food waste and public health

The food wastage problems experienced by nations of varying economic development are vastly different. In developing countries, most of the food waste is down to infrastructure, whereas in more developed regions, food waste is predominantly down to consumer reactions.

In Sub-Saharan Africa for example, 150kg/year per capita of food is lost between the process of production and the process of retailing, due to poor food production technology. Countries in this region have the highest numbers of malnutrition and moderately or severely underweight children under the age of five.

Conversely, social attitudes to food in developed countries are that it is disposable, plentiful and of low value. Food sold in supermarkets there must be attractive and must fit certain specifications of size, shape and colour and if they do not, they are thrown away. A diet rich in meat and processed foods in such places shows in the high levels of cardiovascular diseases, obesity, diabetes and cancer.

The increased production of food has also led to a necessity for farmers to use pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and chemical fertilisers which are thought to cause cancer and antibiotic resistance.

Food wastage also puts a strain on our environment

Emissions of methane from livestock are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases.
Emissions of methane from livestock are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases.

Methane emissions from livestock are one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. The flatulence of animals such as cattle and sheep, as well as the decay of organic waste in landfills, contributes to two-thirds of the methane produced. “As our diets become more meat and dairy-rich, so the hidden climate cost of our food tends to mount up,” University of Edinburgh professor Dave Reay said.

Methane, in large quantities can be extremely dangerous for human health. Known as a “simple asphyxiate”, it displaces oxygen in small confined spaces. The minimum oxygen required for breathing is 18%, and when lower than 10% it can be fatal.

When mixed with other substances, methane also has the potential to become poisonous. When natural gas, which is 97% methane, is burned without proper ventilation, the carbon monoxide it produces can cause death within two hours. At high levels it can kill within three minutes. 500 people die of carbon monoxide poisoning each year in America.

One way in which methane production can be reduced is by adding seaweed to cattle feed. In 2015, a team of Australian researchers found that a particular type of seaweed, called Asparagopsis taxiformis, reduced methane production by more than 99%.

A vegetarian diet reduces meat consumption and therefore methane emissions. Whilst reducing meat consumption as per international health guidelines could reduce emissions by a third by 2050, widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet would bring down emissions by 63%.

Better strategies to create awareness, reducing food waste

To begin with, researchers can pull together and examine the various different recommendations for healthy diets and define what sustainable healthy diets really are. It is also imperative to understand the value of food through the entire process of sourcing, trading, packaging, production, distribution and consumption of food, identify problem areas in these and tackle them. There is also opportunity for technology to create a circular food waste system in cities to increase efficiency. MIMS

Read more:
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Worldwide phenomenon: Poor diet linked to death, global study reveals
In the world of stunted children: Hope thrives when growth falters