The world which we live in today is full of perturbing disparities. One evident manifestation of such disparities is the fact that both obesity and chronic hunger have become major problems around the world. Varying levels of malnutrition affect an estimated one in seven people around the world. Conversely, in the past 20 years, global obesity rates have increased over 80 per cent and become a major health epidemic.
Moreover, while multitudes do not have enough food to eat, the amount of food wastage which takes place is staggering. A recent London-based research report claims that up to half of all the food produced worldwide ends up being wasted due to callous retailer and consumer behaviour or due to inadequate harvesting, storage and transportation related problems.
In richer countries, nearly 30 per cent of what is harvested from the field fails to reach markets due to primarily cosmetic criteria. Fruit and vegetables crops are simply rejected if they do not meet exact size or appearance criteria. Up to half the food that does conform to the stringent regulations for being placed in supermarket shelves is thrown away by its customers.
The food wastage taking place in developing countries is due to inefficiencies within the agricultural production process. In Southeast Asian countries, losses of rice range from 37 to 80 per cent of the entire crop production. Rice, which could be used to feed a significant proportion of the malnourished people in the region, is lost after being cultivated. Similarly, in Pakistan, wheat losses amount to about 16 per cent of production due to inadequate storage infrastructure. Post-harvest losses in fruits and vegetables are even larger, ranging between 25 and 40 per cent.
Global agricultural processes have increasingly encouraged monocropping and corporate farming, aimed at boosting corporate speculative profits at the expense of food security. The existing situation is made worse by the ever-growing number of mouths to feed. The UN predicts global population will peak at around 9.5 billion people by 2075. This rising population, together with improved nutrition and a change in diets, including an increasing demand for meat, will put further pressure on global food supplies in the coming decades.
Perhaps, rising prices will drive the need to reduce food wastage. However, governments should not wait for food pricing to react to this wasteful practice. Rapidly developing countries, like China and Brazil, have taken a significant number of steps to build up infrastructure to transport crops and to improve storage facilities, which can be emulated by other developing countries as well. However, poorer countries require significant investment to improve their agricultural infrastructure. It is also necessary to rethink the types of crops which are grown using scarce irrigational and land resources available in particular countries. Policymakers and development agencies need to reassess the wisdom of emphasising production of crops to earn cash, including the growing emphasis on agro-fuels, especially if it has a directly adverse impact on household food security.
Ultimately, reducing the level of food wastage or addressing coexisting problems, such as malnutrition and obesity, require rethinking broader societal and economic norms. The over-commercialisation of food has detracted us from recognising food as a basic human right. The need to ensure that everyone has adequate food must override all other considerations, including corporate profitability or using agriculture to boost national income.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 21st, 2013.
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