With Passover, or Pesach, swiftly approaching, millions of Jews all over the world will soon be commemorating the biblical story of Exodus, in which God freed the Israelites from slavery after sending ten different plagues down onto Egypt. Like the ten plagues, ongoing environmental and climate crises are afflicting our planet at an unprecedented rate, and the cost of ignoring them only grows more severe. However, unlike the biblical plagues, the climate crisis is a product of our own making, in which our industry, economic activities, and human behaviors accelerate the rate of climate change.
In the 40 years following their deliverance from slavery, the Israelites had to conserve and refrain from wasting any of their food as they traversed through the desert before reaching the promised land. Today, however, the polar opposite is occurring on a global scale. Food waste has become a monumental problem, which one could interpret as a self-inflicted plague—one that should not be ignored.
A new report published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) this March shows that in 2019 alone, 931 million metric tons of food waste was generated worldwide, in which household waste made up 61% of this total. Waste from the food service industry made up 26%, and the retail industry made up 13%.
This amount of food waste is the equivalent of 23 million trucks weighing 40 tons each, which if arranged in a line, would orbit the earth seven times.
In Israel alone, 2.4 million tons of food is wasted every year, of which 50% is edible and can be salvaged. Furthermore, an average Israeli family throws away just over NIS 8,000 worth of food per year while 300,000 families suffer from food insecurity.
Rich and Poor Alike
The negative economic and social implications of waste generation on such a huge scale are clear. Last year, the World Bank estimated 150 million people across the world would fall into poverty by 2021 due to both changes in personal employment status and global instability.
“The pandemic and global recession may cause over 1.4% of the world’s population to fall into extreme poverty,” said World Bank Group President David Malpass in an official statement. Therefore, throwing away food as more people become desperate for it has become an even larger problem.
The report also reveals that the global average of 74 kg per capita of food wasted annually is remarkably similar from lower-middle income to high-income countries, suggesting that most countries have room to improve. This means that the amount food waste generated is surprisingly similar among all socioeconomic classes.
The latest data that appeared in the report is twice as high as data in other similar reports published only a decade ago, indicating the significance of the problem did not hold much value. The authors of the report stressed that this is a phenomenon relevant to the whole world, and that this is an opportunity that needs to be addressed not just in poor and developing countries.
Warming Food Waste
Beyond the economic implications, the authors of the report stressed the need to consider the environment impact food waste is contributing to. According to the IPCC’s latest report, 8-10% of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming between 2010 and 2016 were caused by food waste, or unconsumed food-borne emissions.
According to the American nonprofit, ReFED, in the US alone, more than a third of the food produced is never eaten—about $408 billion worth of food. Although, Recycled Track Systems (RTS) estimate this value to be closer to $161 billion. In addition, the carbon footprint created by the US food industry is almost equal to that of the global transport industry, accounting for about 8% of all carbon emissions in the country.
This data presents the significant effects enabling climate change: the energy consumed during the food production process, which contributes to atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions and the food that is thrown away and left to rot, which produces methane—a greenhouse gas with a 100-year global warming potential 25–30 times that of carbon dioxide.
The rise in atmospheric concentrations of both these gases continues to disrupt the heat balance on Earth and contributes to rising temperatures and accelerating climate change.
Don’t Pass Over Zero-Waste Initiatives
Passover teaches us an important lesson, one that goes hand in hand with our modern tendency to throw away food: one does not give up their moral obligations just because they are free. Yes, freedom gives one the choice of not doing something, but with freedom comes opportunity, and with opportunity comes possibilities. In our case, we have the opportunity to correct our mistakes, especially those that have harmed our vulnerable environment. Thus, the possibilities to restore the health of our environment are numerous.
With regard to food waste and the problems it causes our environment and society as a whole, there are a variety of strategies we are free to adopt and strengthen to make our world a far better place.
The report notes that there are quite a few strategic actions that can be applied, including raising the priority of the issue among international organizations and funds. In addition, the UN intends to establish special missions to address the problem in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Alongside global actions, there are those who have chosen to take the reins and act to improve the situation within their own community like Haifa-based restaurant, Robin Food. The association that runs the restaurant works to cultivate relationships with farmers and suppliers in order to get produce before they are thrown away for various reasons, such as their potential unattractiveness. After being purchased the products are then transferred to the restaurant where they are prepared into delicious dishes for customers.
Even project Food Rescuers Jerusalem is working to change food consumption patterns in Israeli private households, markets, restaurants. As part of the project, the activists also carry out educational activities and organize community meals based on food that they have managed to “save.”
The Israeli organization, The Natural Step, is also working to improve the complex situation by offering services and managing processes in the field of sustainability in Israel. Dr. Michal Bitterman, CEO and founder of the organization, says that the issue reflects a problematic mindset.
“The whole reference to food is distorted. The Israeli consumer gives in to this mindset for many reasons: the culture of abundance, confusion due to unclear expiration dates leading to improper food waste, excessively large packages of products, promotions that push us to buy items we don’t need, and also a lack of dynamic pricing, that is, the lowering of prices before a product expires—a successful waste reduction policy that is currently being pursued among other places, in Italy and France.”
The most significant problem, Bitterman argues, lies in the low level of awareness and lack of policy. “There is a need for regulation that will require a national goal of food reduction, which does not exist in Israel,” she explains, adding that this can be achieved through prioritizing local agriculture, reducing the expiration date range, restricting food wasting by chains and introducing a food donation procedure.
According to Bitterman, these actions should come alongside various moves at the business level, such as streamlining the packaging field and making it more economical, and of course more educational.
Last week, TNS led the “Food Waste Reduction Week” in Israel, in which Bitterman called for the integration of the younger generation in finding solutions to the problem. “Children tend to indulge and want variety. They also tend to not understand how difficult it is to grow a tomato, for example. Therefore, they must be integrated into the process of change.
This ZAVIT Article was also published in The Jewish Journal on 23 Mar. 2021