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The Food Wasting Phenomenon: Are You Aware?

By Raudah Mohd Yunus | 04 Jun 2013
What about the millions of people out there who struggle to put food on the table and others who completely starve?
Some time ago, the 2nd Penang Respiratory Summit brought me to a stylish, aristocratic 5-star hotel in the heart of Malaysia’s second largest city, Georgetown.
The hotel was established in the nineteenth century during the heyday of British colonial rule in Malaysia, and since its birth it has retained its reputation as a grand destination of high-class people.
The hotel stands right next to the sea, charming and elegant. Because of its long life, it witnessed the two world wars, the Japanese invasion, the decline of the British Empire, and the birth of Malaysia in 1957.
As I entered its posh lobby on a Friday morning, I could not help but feel impressed with its stylish English design and hanging chandeliers. I was eagerly waiting for the talks and discussions amid the mouth-watering buffet we would be having for lunch.
True enough, as I was informed prior to the visit, the lunch buffet was luxuriously generous with various kinds of cuisine that one can imagine in such a hotel.
For a moment I was frozen in confusion before all the food, not knowing what to eat and where to start. Too many choices may not be always good after all, I quietly told myself as I filled my plate with ‘char kuey teow’, a very popular local dish, and began eating slowly under the soothing breeze of the strait of Penang.
Following the last session of the final day of our summit, there was a brief farewell tea. Tons of chicken pita sandwiches, exotic cakes and hot beverages were served. The sandwiches were arranged beautifully in pyramid-like manner on several gigantic glass plates. More than half of the participants had rushed home by then, to avoid the afternoon traffic jam.
The ones left, including me, were struggling to eat as there was so much left. I approached a worker standing nearby, asking what would happen to the sandwiches and cakes if they were left untouched.
To my utter dismay and shock, he replied nonchalantly that they would be thrown into the dustbin. I blurted out immediately, ‘Are you sure? Can’t you and your friends take them home? There’s so much left!’ He gave an apologetic smile and shook his head, explaining that this was the hotel’s policy.
I stared at the nicely decorated cuisine in disbelief. How much money has been spent to prepare these delicacies and is it fair to dispose such expensive food in such a manner? What about the millions of people out there who struggle to put food on the table and others who completely starve?
If one hotel wasted this amount of edible food, how much food is wasted by all the hotels in the world altogether? I was scared to find out.
The Wasted Treasure…
Roughly one-third of food produced for human consumption is wasted, or lost, annually on the global scale. This is equivalent to 1.3 billion tons of food. Industrialized and developing nations waste almost similar amount of food yearly, 670 million and 630 million tons respectively.
While in the former, waste occurs at the consumer level, the latter is said to waste more throughout the food processing chain, due to weak infrastructures and lack of proper technology. But this still does not mean that waste does not occur at the consumer level in developing nations.
A closer look will make us horrified at the amount of food wasted by humans, who simultaneously complain that food is not enough for the ever increasing world population.
Food wasted by the rich countries altogether, is roughly equal to the amount of food produced by the entire sub-Saharan Africa! An average consumer in developed nations is reported to waste one-third to half of the food material purchased.
Imagine, this means for every 3 grocery bags bought at a local food store, one will end up in the bin!
Food Waste… Everywhere
Wastage of food becomes worse as society gets more affluent. An average American wastes about 209 to 254 pounds of food each year. Sadly at the same time, 17 million American households were considered ‘food insecure’ in 2010 while 46 million Americans, one in seven people, rely on food stamps.
Singaporeans waste up to almost 600,000 tons of food annually while their Japanese  and Australian counterparts throw away a quarter of all the food volume and 6 billion dollar worth of food respectively.
It gets more interesting, yet frustrating to learn that the food value squandered by Australians can actually feed the entire nation for three weeks, 5% of Americans’ leftover food is enough to feed 4 million people for a day, France’s leftover can satisfy the whole of Congo and that of Italy’s can feed Ethopia’s undernourished (Source: The Yumiuri Shimbun 28.07.08).
I was more than flabbergasted to come across these facts. Now let’s take a glimpse at Malaysia’s statistics. Experts have reported that Malaysians are throwing away 930 tons of food every day. How bad is 930 tons? It is equivalent to 93,000 of 10kg rice bags per day, to be exact!
Another piece of bad news is, food wastage has doubled over the past three years. Malaysia is close to the developed nation’s status in the amount of waste generated, as compared to other developing nations like India and Bangladesh.
The habit of wasting is obviously more rampant among the urban community and despite the worrying trend of obesity and chronic diseases related to sedentary lifestyle and uncontrolled food intake, Malaysians do not seem bothered enough.
Excessive waste of food is still seen everywhere; houses, restaurants, hotels, wedding receptions, official functions and all kinds of parties one can think of.
There is a common practice among average Malaysians to make sure excess food is available at any occasion, as surplus of food is considered a sign of generosity or even luxury while the opposite is shameful.
“Nothing Is Wrong With It!”
When discussing food waste, most people do not make guilt an issue as this habit is not considered a crime.
To make things worse, some do not even think there is anything wrong with throwing away fresh and edible food for it has become a norm.
Ignorance about the negative impacts of wasting food on both humans and the environment is probably the main culprit. Is wasting food so bad? One might ask. The answer is a definite yes!
First, wasting food is a question of morality. 920 million people go hungry worldwide with a third out of these being children. Taking into account the massive amount of food easily disposed into the bin every day by the rich while others are completely deprived, curbing waste should be made a priority.
The more we waste, the more people will go hungry and undernourished, and the worse global hunger will get. A little far-fetched? Not at all!
World hunger today is a crisis of distribution rather than production. Unequal allocation is obvious, as there is a higher demand of food in rich countries.
Food is being treated as a commodity rather than a basic need, and the commercialization of food has favored its distribution to profitable areas. In simpler words, where there is more profit, the more available food will be. Poor and third world countries are exploited in the cruelest paradox; their farmers are physically exploited at the cheapest cost, and their fertile lands are used to grow crops, fruits and vegetables which are then exported to wealthy nations at a good price to feed those who can afford.
In return, the money is mostly grabbed by individual owners of big companies, while the native people are left starving despite the abundance of food and the fertile lands around.
Wasting will only increase the demand of food (when actually the amount needed is much less) by the same rich areas. As the habit gets more rampant, the vicious cycle continues: more food will need to be produced as to satisfy the ‘false’ need of those people who waste, and eventually food crisis occurs, in which food price will soar and plunge those already vulnerable into a more despicable state. Another detrimental effect of food wastage is on the environment.
Throwing a cup of coffee into the basin means wasting approximately 140 liters of water, as such is the amount needed to grow, produce, package and process the beans.
Dumping a kilo of beef wastes about 50,000 liters of water consumed to produce that meat. This is exclusive of the amount of crop used to feed the cow. A kilo of white rice and potatoes takes 2000 and 500 liters of water respectively to be produced.
Decomposition of food and organic material in landfills generates methane, which is 20 times a more harmful gas than carbon dioxide in creating the greenhouse effect.
In conclusion, wastage of food contributes not only to food and water crisis but also intensifies global warming.
Prophet Muhammad and Resources
An often overlooked aspect of the Islamic teaching is its emphasis on frugality, thrift and avoidance of waste.
The Prophet’s reminder to be sparing when using water for ablution (wudhu’) 1400 years ago is perhaps the simplest, yet most important sign of this quality being essential in Islam.
God Almighty says in the Holy Qur’an; “Eat and drink, but do not be extravagant (wasteful). Surely He does not love those who are extravagant” (7:31) and another verse, “…. and do not squander wastefully. Surely the squanderers are the brethren (followers) of the devil, and the devil is ever ungrateful to his Lord.” (17:26-27).
In the issue of  profligacy, Islam has even gone one step ahead when it declares that time not spent for meaningful and productive activities is also considered a form of waste.
Allah says, “By the time! Surely man is in loss. Except for those who have faith and perform good deeds, and those who exhort one another to truthfulness and exhort one another to patience” (103:1-3).
If humans can be more prudent, many problems will be automatically solved without the necessity of putting too much effort. 
Think of the amount of natural resources that can be saved, the number of hungry people that can be fed, and the extent of environmental damage that can be reversed or prevented if food wastage were minimal.
The Islamic teaching commands that as God’s vicegerents on earth, humans are to manage this world in the best possible manner as to benefit and do justice to all creatures, not to pamper the humans’ greed and insatiable lust.
While it is true that most world predicaments today are purely man-made, humans also possess an immeasurable capability and the power of mind to face the biggest of crises and resolve the worst of catastrophes.
Remember this saying the next time you want to dispose eatable food: today’s wastage is tomorrow’s shortage.