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Love Food Hate Waste: Are food banks a curse on sustainability?

Love Food Hate Waste: Are food banks a curse on sustainability?

The fate of lost food has suddenly become a hot topic around the world. Politicians are waking up to the fact that so much food is being thrown away, which could help literally millions of people in need. In many countries, legislation has been introduced, often in the form of tax rebates to incentivise people and companies to give surplus (lost) food.

France is certainly a world leader in this regard. However, this month the British environment secretary, Michael Gove, added Britain to the growing list of countries who are taking action. In the autumn budget, he announced plans that will see £15mil (RM81mil) ploughed into the economy to reduce food waste and redistribute more meals. This is a very big cultural step for the British government. Unlike many of their European counterparts, they have resisted linking food waste to any taxation initiative. However, as Lindsay Boswell, the CEO of Fareshare, one of the largest food banks in Britain points out, the country has over 2,000 food banks, yet only 6% of surplus food is rescued. This means 94% of food is currently wasted.

This announcement has received a great deal of positive media coverage, however, there are many influential people in the sustainability world that are against the idea of lost food being redistributed.

It is not because they are sadistic and want people to go hungry. They would argue that using food in this way allows the public to be sympathetic to overproduction that is an inevitable by-product of the food industry. They claim this may exacerbate an already difficult problem.

The believe the environmental damage caused by the continuously high ratio of food waste (33%) is a more serious long-term problem (than under nourished individuals) and addressing this issue has to be the top priority.

I also wrestle with this dilemma – but only for a short time. I think there is a moral duty to feed others if we are in a position to do so. Unlike some of the experts I have spoken to, I do not believe the use of food banks will directly cause an increase in overproduction, which will damage sustainability efforts. On the contrary, by rescuing food, we are utilising important sources of carbon and other elements, which will prevent the build-up and release of CO2, methane and other gases which is a consequence of unused food being left to rot in landfill.

It is easy to understand some of those concerns. However, like a younger sibling, I believe food waste is now following the path of single-use plastic. That is, it is now on the global agenda and over the next 10 to 20 years, our behaviour will change dramatically. Our children will look back on our bad habits in amazement (perhaps in the same way our grandparents might raise an eyebrow or two about the way we discard food).

It is very hard for individual companies to change production processes, particularly in a competitive environment. However, if a general consensus begins to emerge (led by governments and supported by the public) the corporate world does have the capacity to act fast and make a big impact.

Predicting the future and carving up best practice is never easy. However, I would suggest the key would be for society to reward low levels of waste. A CEO from one of the major multinational companies in Malaysia admitted sales targets have been a top priority – this often comes at the expense of sustainability. It is very important to produce enough product, so you never have to decline a sale. Having low levels of waste will not win you any awards. If this attitude can be changed, perhaps we can really start to tackle and reduce the 33% level of food waste we are currently disposing.


Get your copy of Star2 tomorrow for more articles along with quizzes and prize giveaways. Love Food Hate Waste appears in print on the fourth Thursday of every month in collaboration with Suzanne Mooney, who is the founder of The Lost Food Project. It’s the first food bank in Malaysia to have professional contracts with a number of supermarkets, manufacturers and a wholesale market. They distribute 50,000 meals a month to over 40 charities, composting any donated food unfit for human consumption. E-mail: TLFPcomp@gmail.com
Love Food Hate Waste: Can Malaysia be a gastro-sustainable capital?

Love Food Hate Waste: Can Malaysia be a gastro-sustainable capital?

This month (September), the UN released the latest statistics on world hunger. Despite the march of human progress, the number of hungry people continues to rise – it is now over 815 million. In real terms, that means one in every nine people do not have enough food, and millions of them will die of malnutrition.

This is unacceptable when we know the volume of surplus or lost food produced is actually enough to feed every hungry person four times over. It’s not just countries in Africa or the Indian subcontinent – Malaysia, too, has many people suffering from lack of food.

The good news is the new government of Malaysia has woken up to this reality. New initiatives are being discussed to strategically ensure lost food can be re-distributed to the poorest and most needy in our society. This is to be applauded – and I believe we will see big changes within the next two years in terms of food donations to food banks.

I am hopeful that if we can make this work well in Malaysia, in the longer term, we can perhaps even share a blueprint with neighbouring Asean countries that really suffer from widespread hunger. Indonesia and the Philippines, in particular, produce enormous amounts of items that end up as lost food. The poverty in these countries is far worse than in Malaysia. We can really help them – if we can professionalise food-banking across the country and prove how simple it is to develop a system to feed a nation at a very small cost.

gastro-sustainability

Malaysians are spoilt for choice when it comes to food. Photo: The Star

Interestingly, the US and Europe are more advanced because they have been operating in this field for so long (over 25 years). Their motivating factors were not primarily to address hunger; instead, the industry grew out of concern for the environmental consequences caused by the food disposal, and mainly, from the enormous financial cost to both government and businesses. Since the financial crash of 2008 and the continuing austerity measures that have been put in place, many people in these countries are also facing hardships. In Britain alone, there are over 2,000 food banks. A recent poll commissioned by The Independent newspaper showed that one in 14 people in Britain have been forced to resort to using a food bank due to financial hardship.

Even one of the richest countries in the world, Denmark, has a thriving food bank. Last month, the World Food Summit took place in its capital, Copenhagen. Themed “Better Food For More People”, it gathered together a mix of global CEOs, government stakeholders and other key decision makers. When you look at the people in the room, you know the world is now taking this issue very seriously.

This is the third time Denmark has hosted this event. Copenhagen is becoming a gastronomic capital in Europe, and the Danes care passionately about sustainability. The government prioritises food, both in terms of the importance of the ministry within government and the importance of this annual summit. The Prime Minister and Royal Family play key roles over the two days.

For me, Malaysia is the gastronomic capital of the world! I have lived in several countries and have never experienced the diversity and cultural importance of food that exists in every corner of Malaysia. We should leverage on this and follow Denmark’s lead in becoming strategic leaders in gastronomy sustainability.

Our neighbours in Singapore play host next month to the regional meeting of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. The WBCSD is made up of 200 CEOs from some of the world’s largest companies. It is great they are coming to our region. Singapore is certainly now addressing sustainability issues, particularly in relation to the environment. However, with a smaller and richer population, food-banking is not as important. With a little effort, I can see us becoming gastro-sustainable leaders of the future – and hosting future regional meetings.

Next month, we honour the most important day in our annual calendar. October 16 is World Food Day. It’s a day to focus on food security issues. The Lost Food Project uses this day to raise public awareness about these problems, and real world solutions. We work with any mindful corporates that want to use this day as an opportunity to engage with their staff as a CSR activity. One of our key partners, Unilever, will be holding a Superbrand Day with Lazada. Unlike other Superbrand Days on Lazada, this is the first time there is a CSR angle and a charity beneficiary. From every sale of a Unilever product on that day, Unilever will donate a meal. One For One. We hope enough products will be snapped up during this inaugural charity promotion to provide 100,000 meals to help needy charities in Malaysia.

To raise awareness on the issue of zero hunger and food waste, we will be attempting to get into the Malaysia Book of Records for most meals finished. It’s called the #MYCleanPlate Challenge. We are challenging everyone to eat all the food on their plate for one meal on World Food Day and share photos of their clean plates on social media tagging them #mycleanplate #WFD18 and #zerohunger. We are involving companies, universities and schools. If you are a company and want to get involved, please e-mail tlfpcsr@gmail.com and if you’re a school or university, please e-mail tlfpeducation@gmail.com.


Get your copy of Star2 tomorrow for more articles along with quizzes and prize giveaways. Love Food Hate Waste appears in print on the fourth Thursday of every month in collaboration with Suzanne Mooney, who is the founder of The Lost Food Project. It’s the first food bank in Malaysia to have professional contracts with a number of supermarkets, manufacturers and a wholesale market. They distribute 50,000 meals a month to over 40 charities, composting any donated food unfit for human consumption. E-mail: TLFPcomp@gmail.com
Love Food Hate Waste: From tapioca to tapas

Love Food Hate Waste: From tapioca to tapas

In recent decades, the growth of the cities and new housing estates has brought a proliferation of f&b outlets to the Klang Valley and beyond. Traditional kopitiams have gone mod and given birth to franchises all over the country. The third-wave coffee trend brought a rash of cheerful cafes into our neighbourhoods. Even fancy-pants fine dining restaurants moved into the more residential areas. Then came the food truck invasion.

We hardly need to travel 200m to find food. Food is everywhere. On TV, food shows are being aired 24/7. It populates our Instagram, Facebook and mobile devices. Our vocabulary has expanded with new words like macaron, cronut, okonomiyaki, bibimbap, iberico and tapas.

We are more in touch with food than at any other time in history. Everyone is an expert in food. We know where to find the dirtiest zang zang bao. More of us are more willing to spend more on a restaurant meal. We are more willing to eat out more often. Heck, we’ve even moved meetings from the boardroom to a café nearby. The food show is probably the greatest show on earth right now.

On the glitzy side, it looks like food security has hit an all time high – easily available, affordable and pretty good. On the flip side, the side that most diners don’t see, more food gets thrown away every day. And what we don’t realise: We obsess over the looks of our cupcakes more than the taste or nutrition. We are eating more salmon than kembong. Kale instead of kailan. We are cooking less and less.

Step back to a post-Merdeka time and I’m in a vegetable plot wielding a watering can. Food security is about growing our own vegetables in the front garden and rearing chickens and ducks for eggs and meat in the backyard. Every good housewife goes to the wet market in the morning and cooks for the family. Supermarkets are not yet born. Eating out is unheard of. Frugality is the biggest game in town and nothing gets thrown away.

People collect recyclable items from a pile of rubbish at a landfill at Porto Romano, Albania. Photo: Reuters

Looking at the huge mountain of trash that we generate today, I have to think the old way of life is way more sustainable. In my parent’s house, any leftover food was recycled the next day. Excess rice got fried with sambal and egg into aromatic sambal fried rice; leftover fish or meat was shredded and fried with garlic, onion, chillies, etc into a kind of gloubi-boulga, beloved food of baby dinosaurs. Leftover vegetables became party food for the feathered community in the coop, fish bones went to the cats and bones, the family dog.

Even used bath water got a second life. The house was built such that the water runoffs could be pooled in a sort of dam aka longkang. This enriched water was then used to hydrate the kitchen garden. The poop from the coop became fertiliser – we didn’t know about composting then or I’m sure my dad would have been a master composter. He was imaginative enough. We didn’t have a toilet upstairs in those days and the golden potty mix was sometimes diluted as the ultimate fertiliser. Perhaps the old house was designed on purpose that way.

Needless to say, the garden thrived. We had enough organic vegetables to share with the entire neighbourhood – only we didn’t call it organic then. And they knew how to rotate the different vegetables to keep the soil robust and intercropping to keep the pests away. Although none of us inherited this knowledge, we developed a love and respect for the land and growing a garden. We can all appreciate nature and understand how we – domestic animals included – depend on each other. And we know how much hard work it is to grow food.

food waste

Potatoes that have been ‘rejected by traditional distribution channels’ are sold at Nous grocery store, in Melesse near Rennes, north-western France. Nous is ‘dedicated to the reduction of food waste’. Photo: AFP

While all this was done in the name of frugality, the old way was perfectly right. How did we get from there to being a nation that throws away 15,000 tonnes of food, equivalent to eight football fields, daily. Of this, 3,000 tonnes are food that is still edible and if saved, can feed 2.2 million people three times a day. Of Malaysia’s 31.8 million people, 0.6% (about 200,000) are living below the poverty line; that means the wasted food is enough to feed all the poor in the country.

I called up Dr Ainu Husna MS Suhaimi, head of the MYSaveFood Secretariat at the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) for some answers.

“When I was growing up, my father used to tell me about the difficult period prior to independence. How food was scarce, and how the one meal was often just ubi kayu and ikan masin – tapioca root dug out from the ground and little river fish preserved in salt.

“Not many of us went through that as only 6% of the populace was born before independence. But many more of us lived it vicariously through an older member of the family. Our generation gets it that food insecurity is dreadful. To be avoided at all cost.”

From that point, improving food security has been an important agenda for the country. Good and nutritious food should be easily available, accessible and most importantly, affordable for all. To this end, the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry (MOA) and its agencies such as Mardi, Department of Agriculture (DOA) and the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (Fama) have worked to increase food production in Malaysia. Among the strategies taken are the development of quality seeds, breeds and varieties, embracing and developing new technologies, policies and SOPs to increase quality and yield.

This is still work-in-progress. Malaysia is not yet self-sufficient in many food commodities. We are in trade deficit and spent RM46.7bil on food imports in 2016. Despite footing so much for food, we then waste a large part of it.

“And that is why the work of NGOs such as The Lost Food Project, Food Aid Foundation and GrubCycle to rescue this surplus food is invaluable. Reducing food lost – and food waste – is one way to improve our food security,” says Dr Ainu.

food waste

File photo of a rice farmer working his field at Pantai Chenang, in Langkawi, Kedah. Photo: The Star

In 2016, 7.9% of rice produced in Malaysia, valued at about RM246mil, was lost from the harvest during the milling, transportation and storage stages. “Reducing just 1% of the post-harvest loss will be able to provide a year’s supply of rice to 340,000 people.

“In theory, if food loss of rice can be reduced, more local rice will be available to the market and rice importation can be cut. The same theory can be applied to fruits and vegetables. The trade deficit for rice, vegetables and fruits for Malaysia in 2016 is approximately RM7.5bil and reducing it will really benefit our country.”

A concerted effort by all parties is needed to reduce food loss and food waste, says Dr Ainu. “The various government ministries need to work together to identify critical areas and address them.”

She says MYSaveFood networks with other agencies to create awareness to help reduce food lost and food waste in the country. To date, more than 150 partners have pledged to work together and more than 90 awareness programmes have been carried out.

Five things you can do to improve food security

  • Reduce food waste at home and at the restaurants
  • Eat local, support local farmers
  • Eat a more varied diet
  • Recycle
  • Grow your own food

Get your copy of Star2 tomorrow for more articles along with quizzes and prize giveaways. Love Food Hate Waste appears in print on the fourth Thursday of every month in collaboration with Suzanne Mooney, who is the founder of The Lost Food Project. It’s the first food bank in Malaysia to have professional contracts with a number of supermarkets, manufacturers and a wholesale market. They distribute 50,000 meals a month to over 40 charities, composting any donated food unfit for human consumption. E-mail: TLFPcomp@gmail.com
Love Food Hate Waste: Let’s be champions of sustainability

Love Food Hate Waste: Let’s be champions of sustainability

It has taken me all my life to understand the true meaning of sustainability. I thought it was something to do with chopping down fewer trees, driving smaller cars and reducing our meat intake. Someone once described it as “making things last forever”. But what does it really mean?

It was only since I arrived here in Malaysia nearly five years ago that I realised sustainability is both complex, and at the same time, very simple. It is about our lives, our health, and our wealth. And if we don’t embrace it, it could be what threatens our ultimate existence.

Population vs food availability

Scientists predict that the global population will increase by 30% by the year 2050. This means that, while today there are 7.3 billion people to feed, by 2050 there will be 9.7 billion in need of food. The United Nations warns this will result in a 60% increase in demand for food production. Where will we get this food from? In many parts of the world, already vital resources like water and soil nutrients are under threat.

Many experts are already trying to help solve this problem. They suggest that in order to produce higher yields, farming practices should modernise and become more efficient. This means replacing human labour with machinery, chemicals, robots and smart technologies. When I learned that over 65% of “poor working adults” globally make their living through agriculture, I saw the dilemma. And I asked myself, which one of these should have highest priority? Job security or food production? There is no clear answer. But if we are to set the scene for the generations to come, we need to start finding solutions that are sustainable from every angle. I don’t have the answer to this, but I do know that we need to understand that by finding a solution to one problem, we may be making another worse. Sustainability asks that we try to find the best balance.

In 30 years, the population will reach 9.7 billion people (an extra 2.4 billion).

• Where will they live, and what jobs will they have?
• What impact will this have on those of us close to retirement in 20 to 30 years?
• Who will pay for our pensions?
• Will the elderly have to support the younger generations rather than the other way around?

I’m not saying that we should not progress. Inevitably, new jobs will be created in new sectors and technology will play an increasingly important role. But at what cost? What impact will a technology-driven economy have on society and migration? Will people need to leave Malaysia in search of jobs elsewhere? Will there be more people coming to Malaysia in search of work? Whatever happens, it is clear that society is likely to become more volatile. Around the world, an increased population will only add to the strain on our limited resources, which could create more geopolitical instability.

sustainability

Burgers being made by a robot from Creator, a culinary robotics company in California. What impact will a technology-driven economy have on society and migration? Photo: Bloomberg

Add to this the impact of climate change. Many scientists predict that water levels will rise and the world will continue to become warmer, potentially causing more catastrophic natural disasters. No one can forget the horror of the 2004 tsunami on our doorstep.

So who will find the answer to all the sustainability conundrums? In the movies, it seems so simple: a superhero comes and saves the day. But in real life, things are not so simple. Business leaders and politicians benefit from short-term rewards; we cannot rely on them for long-term solutions. Bonuses are linked to share prices, and politicians need popular votes to win elections. Today, being a champion of sustainability will not win an election – because it might involve people making sacrifices. However, we as individuals need to take responsibility, and as a society we need to be smart enough to take the long-term view. And we do not need to look far to find ways that you can play our part. Reducing food waste is one of the most effective and simple ways that you can be part of the solution.

The food waste solution

• Over 33% of food produced is discarded along the supply chain.
• Research shows over 50% of new agricultural land in the tropics was a result of deforestation.
• 25% of greenhouse gases are caused directly by food production. If food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

There are always compromises and strategic decisions to be made if we really do want to provide the same standard of living for future generations. Maybe we will one day have to accept our standard of living cannot keep increasing. It is vital we consider potential long-term effects now – to alleviate big problems. We need to have our radar switched on and contingency plans at the ready. So who should be pushing for change? The answer is you and I, your friends, family, neighbours. All of us as individuals.

Here is an example you can use to describe the dilemma of sustainability to your friends, colleagues and children. It is provided by one of the world’s most famous naturalists, Sir David Attenborough.

Humans use vast amounts of pesticides to grow crops more efficiently, reducing food waste. However, in the last 10 years some bee populations have declined by as much as 35%. There are different reasons for this, but many studies have shown one of the primary causes is the use of pesticides (particularly neonicotinoids).

File photo taken on April 5, 2018 of a bee pollinating a flower in an orchard near Agen, south-west France. Photo: AFP/Georges Gobet

This might not seem like a big problem but in many regions of the world bees are key pollinators. Bees and other pollinating insects are responsible for pollinating over 33% of all food we grow. Without bees, many foods would no longer be produced. At risk would be fruit, nuts, vegetables. Hand pollination is too labour-intensive and would cost hundreds of billions of euros per year.

A world without bees would clearly be a disaster in terms of food production – so the European Union collective have recently banned all pesticides that harm bees.

This example shows us the see-saw of sustainability rationale we will have to address in the future. But it’s not all doom and gloom. We have enough warning that we can act now. As individuals we can take some personal responsibility in addressing one of the biggest problems – mitigating the enormous contribution food waste has by reducing our habits.

We have to adapt our thinking if we are to remain the agile animal on planet earth. Evolution has proved that humans are resourceful and smart. Let’s hope we stay that way.


Get your copy of Star2 tomorrow for more articles along with quizzes and prize giveaways.
Suzanne Mooney is the founder of Malaysian food bank The Lost Food Project. Love Food Hate Waste appears in print on the fourth Thursday of the month.

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