Food waste is taking on a new meaning in the pandemic era.
Dumped milk in Wisconsin. Smashed eggs in Nigeria. Rotting grapes in India. Buried hogs in Minnesota. These disturbing images have stirred outrage around the world. But here’s the surprising part: the world may not actually be wasting more than normal, when a third of global food production ends up in landfills.
What’s changing now is that rather than being thrown out by consumers as kitchen waste, an unprecedented amount of food is getting dumped even before making it into grocery stores.
Blame broken supply chains. Across the globe, production is handled through what’s known as just-in-time methods. Output from farms can be shuttled into stores or restaurants within just a few days, and the next batch of crops and livestock is ready to take its place immediately.
When those chains face challenges — as has been the case with trucking, ports, labor crunches, restaurant shutdowns and slowed trade — there’s a huge backlog of supply that never makes it to stores.
That will likely have devastating consequences on food security. Prices could end up rising further as millions are already suffering financially from the Covid-19 fallout.
“People who can barely afford to feed themselves now will face even more problems,” said Marc Bellemare, a co-editor of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. “What worries me is human welfare.”
Before the pandemic, an estimated $1 trillion of food production ended up lost or wasted. The great bulk of that came from trash at home — about 40% in the U.S. Now as people deal with fewer trips to the store and concerns over prices, dumping from the kitchen is expected to tumble, countering other losses. Some analysts say total waste could still be “potentially” higher this year, but close to a dozen interviews showed that no one was ready to take a firm stand on that.
“We don’t know whether it’s going to be more or less food waste in total this year, because you cannot underestimate that people are checking their own behavior at home. But I’m very worried about the waste situation when it comes to food security,” said Bellemare, who’s also a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Applied Economics in St. Paul.
World hunger could double. That’s according to a letter last month to world leaders signed by Nestle SA, Unilever NV, Danone SA and PepsiCo Inc. The United Nations has also warned of the risk, with its World Food Programme saying the number of people facing acute food insecurity could reach 265 million.
Some groups are already trying to solve the disconnect between food waste and hunger. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, is buying $3 billion worth of surplus American meat, dairy and fresh produce that the agency will then partner with distributors to deliver to food banks and other organizations. The initiative is known as the “Farmers to Families Food Box Program.” But it’s hard to say how much of a dent those kinds of measures will make.
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