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Topic / Advocacy and Social Movements

Do I Really Have To Eat This? The Follies of Food Loss

As a child, there was one golden rule: Don’t waste food.

My five siblings had dutifully eaten all their food. I, on the other hand, was being held hostage by liver and mushy peas.  

“Finish your dinner. Kids are starving in Africa.”

This being the Biafran Famine (1967-70), my mom was informed.

I was less informed, more cheeky.

“Well, maybe we could put this in Tupperware and send it to them.”

Tupperware being the latest rage, I thought Mom would be hip to the idea.

Her face indicated she was not.

The World Food Program (WFP),1 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO),2 ChildFund,3 and even Harvard,4 working the Global Foodbanking Network,5 all espouse the same message: reducing food loss helps those who are hungry.

Mom was wrong in 1969, and these aid agencies are wrong today. But they certainly are not alone. Google “food loss and hunger” and you will get millions of results.

But as someone who pioneered food banking in Japan for the last 23 years, I understand food loss/waste and hunger are not directly connected as others would claim. I am not alone. In 2017, Andy Fisher wrote Big Hunger to critique anti-hunger groups and their marketing campaigns that make this connection. He emphasizes that food waste cannot solve hunger.6

Why do many people think that there is a connection between food waste and hunger? It’s because our emotions are being manipulated, or as Blaise Pascal succinctly summed up, “The heart has its reason, of which reason knows nothing.”

I understand why this happens. So many emotions are tied to food. Think of any important celebration and food is there. It’s there when we feel down or sick. We share food to connect with others. And fundamentally, it nourishes us. Food is life.

Against this backdrop, throwing away food feels guilty in any culture. This is especially true in Japan, where the food self-sufficiency rate, which indicates a country’s ability to produce enough food for all its needs, was 38% in 2021.7

But social issues like hunger require us to look beyond our emotions and think critically and rationally. When we engage in programs which feel good but have no impact, we waste our time, talents, and treasure.8

How can food loss and hunger be unconnected?

Food loss is a natural byproduct of our capitalistic system. In Big Hunger, Fisher says there are policies and economic incentives that promote food loss.9 I believe it is a function of choice: More choices lead to more food loss. We are presented with mind-numbing options at supermarkets (do we need 12 kinds of mustard?). Restaurants often take the “more is better” approach. All of this comes from planned surplus: making sure customers’ demands are met.

Think of the food supply chain as a path which is wide at the start and gradually narrows until it ends with you, the consumer.10 Not all the food produced will make it to the end of the journey. Just as demand cannot be perfectly predicted, more will be supplied in order for the consumer to have a choice. There will always be a need to have more in the food supply chain to meet consumer expectations to have choices.

Farmers also face the issue of unpredictable supply. For example, they cannot predict crop yields, let alone market prices. A bumper crop is no blessing to a farmer who knows this drives down prices. In the fall of 2023, the bumper crop of corn pushed down prices worldwide and created surpluses that strained storage facilities.11 Similar stories abound along the supply chain when supply outstrips demand.

But let’s move on to the most often touted phrase related to food loss, “One-third of food is wasted each year!”12 The statistic can be found on the pages of the WFP, FAO, and the World Wide Fund (WWF). Does that make you angry? Perhaps you might feel differently if you knew some key facts.

There is no single universal definition for food loss and food waste.13 I participated in the 2017 APEC Expert Consulation of Food Losses and Waste Reduction held in Taiwan.14 Brian Lipinski, a research associate with the Food Program at the World Resources Institute, pointed out the stark differences in the definition.15 Even within the US government, there is no universal definition. For example, the US Department of Agriculture reported 66.5 million tons of food loss while the US Environmental Protection Agency indicated that there was 36.5 million tons food disposed.16

At this conference, I interpreted for the delegate from Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF).17 Interestingly, this presentation used the term “food waste” even though MAFF only uses “food loss” on its Japanese website.18 19 This points to the fundamental issue how food waste and food loss are defined and which would dramatically change how they are calculated.

While my country, Japan, is just one example, it does point a universal problem of no unified definition. Even the “Food Loss + Waste Protocol” project admits as much.20

If food loss is about choice, then hunger is about access to food.

Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking book, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, challenged the predominant narrative of famines being caused by a lack of food. He outlines the food surpluses during the great Bengal famine of 1943.

Janet Poppendieck writes critically of food assistance in the US. Her 2014 book, Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression talks extensively of food surplus amidst so much want and need in this period.

In both cases, there was an abundance of food, but people starved because they did not have access to it. In a capitalistic system, access is driven by money. More money, more access. Little or no money and access is dramatically limited.

Conflating food loss and hunger is problematic because it leads to campaigns and actions which have no impact. I was lecturing on the Peace Boat, an international NGO promoting peace, human rights, and sustainability, on this topic when a passenger proudly told me they had eaten all their food.21 What they did not consider was the food on their plate had the same ultimate destination, the bilge. The only difference would be the pathway.

Climate change is upon us. We cannot afford feel-good actions with no impact. We need accurate information to make informed decisions. Eating all your food does nothing to eliminate hunger or impact global warming. It only makes people feel good. A greater concern is people assume their actions made a difference and do not engage further.

Aid organizations that address hunger and food security would do better to focus on creating access to food than pandering to people’s emotions about throwing away food.

We need to have the conversation my mom and I should have had. If we want to use our time and talents to tackle the pressing needs in the world, we need to step away from our emotions and consider the impact of our actions. Eating all our food may relieve our pangs of guilt, but it does no one in the world any good.

  1. World Food Programme, “#StopTheWaste 2021,” accessed January 28, 2024, ↩︎
  2. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “Tackling Food Loss and Waste: A Triple Win Opportunity,” September, 29, 2022, ↩︎
  3. “Stop Food Waste and Help End Child Hunger,” ChildFund, accessed January 28, 2024, ↩︎
  4. “Harvard Research Addresses Food Waste, Hunger, and Climate Change Crisis in Australia,” Center For Health Law and Policy Innovation, June 23, 2022, ↩︎
  5. Global FoodBanking Network, “New Harvard Research Takes Aim at Global Food Donation Laws and Policies to Address Food Waste, Hunger, and Climate Crisis,” September 28, 2022, ↩︎
  6. Andy Fisher, “Why Food Waste Is Not a Solution to Hunger,” Resilience, April 26, 2018, ↩︎
  7. Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, “FY2022 Summary of the Annual Report on Food, Agriculture and Rural Areas in Japan,” May 2023, ↩︎
  8. “Social Programs That Just Don’t Work,” GiveWell, accessed January 28, 2024, ↩︎
  9. Fisher, “Why Food Waste Is Not a Solution to Hunger.” ↩︎
  10. CDC, “The Food Production Chain,” November 20, 2013, ↩︎
  11. Mark Weinraub, “Bumper US Corn Harvest Sinks Prices, Pushes Global Supply to Surplus,” Reuters, October 19, 2023, ↩︎
  12. “OneThird,” accessed January 28, 2024, ↩︎
  13. “The First Step to Reducing Food Loss and Waste Is Deciding What It Is,” Tata-Cornell Institute, March 2, 2023, ↩︎
  14. “2017 APEC Expert Consultation of Food Losses and Waste Reduction,” APEC-FLOWS, June 12, 2017, ↩︎
  15. Brian Lipinski, “Food Loss + Waste Protocol,” 2017 APEC Expert Consultation on Food Losses and Waste Reduction, June 12, 2017, ↩︎
  16. Lipinski, “Food Loss + Waste Protocol.” ↩︎
  17. “Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries,” accessed January 30, 2024, ↩︎
  18. “Reducing Food Loss and Waste in Japan,” No-Foodloss Project, June 2017, ↩︎
  19. “‘Food Loss’ Definition from MAFF Homepage [Japanese],” accessed January 30, 2024, ↩︎
  20. Food Loss + Waste Protocol, “Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard,” 2016, ↩︎
  21. “Peace Boat,” accessed January 30, 2024, ↩︎