Just as the sun goes down behind the high-rise flats in Lembah Pantai, Kuala Lumpur, trader M. Yanis Mohd Tengku Mahadi hangs an orange tag over the beam of his nasi campur stall at the Ramadan bazaar.
It’s almost time for maghrib prayers and soon calls will be resonating from the nearby mosques. It is time to break fast.
Yanis has been doing the same thing for the past 15 years, selling more than 40 types of dishes as well as nasi lemak and kuih at his stall, every Ramadan.
Most of the time, his dishes are a hit with visitors to the bazaar, one of a few dozen dotting the Klang Valley during the holy month. But even on a good day, there is bound to be leftovers.
“There is still some leftover, although not a lot. Yet I cannot bear to see this go to waste,” he says in an interview.
This year, Yanis is taking part in the MYSaveFood@Ramadan programme organised by government agencies – the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) and the Ampang Jaya Municipal Council – youth volunteer group Pertubuhan Pemuda Gema Malaysia, and the Solid Waste Management and Public Cleansing Corporation (SWCorp) Malaysia.
He is among hundreds of traders in 15 locations nationwide who are giving what they cannot sell to the programme so the food can be redistributed by volunteers to the needy and to charitable homes.
The orange tag tells the volunteers which traders to go to.
“I feel so relieved that there are initiatives like this so that there is no waste,” says Yanis as MYSaveFood volunteers come by his stall to pick up the leftover food.
A Big Waste
It is an irony that a nation of passionate food lovers – remember the chicken rice war with Singapore and the popiah battle with Indonesia? – throws away some 16,680 tonnes of grub a day, according to a 2017 survey by SWCorp.
Food waste, according to the survey, makes up 44.5% of the almost 38,000 tonnes of solid waste generated by Malaysians daily. The waste composition study was conducted in several places, each targeting at least 50 people.
While this figure may already seem high, it climbs every time there is a festival, according to Mardi’s Advanced and Reproductive Technologies Programme deputy director Dr Ainu Husna MS Suhaimi.
“We can get up to 100kg of food from one Ramadan bazaar alone,” she points out.
And, despite rising world hunger, this wastage isn’t just confined to Malaysians. Globally, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) website, an estimated one-third of all food produced – that’s a staggering 1.3 billion tonnes – is either lost or goes to waste.
It’s not just food that gets wasted every time a meal is binned – it also means wasting resources like labour, water, electricity and land – that have gone into making it.
You might think that it’s just rice, coconut milk, sambal and half an egg that goes into making a plate of Malaysia’s favourite dish, nasi lemak, and you aren’t completely wrong. However, it takes between 100 and 120 days to plant, grow and harvest rice, a coconut tree takes five years to grow, and a chicken takes four months to start laying eggs.
Multiply that with all the food that gets binned and such wastage translates to roughly US$680bil (RM2.846tril) in industrialised countries and US$310bil (RM1.297tril) in developing nations.
The FAO also estimates that the total carbon footprint from food wastage translates to some 4.4 GtCO2 eq (gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent) per year when you take into account machinery, livestock, soil, land use change (from wild lands to agricultural land), processing, transportation, preparation and disposal.
This means that if food wastage were a country by itself, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas-emitting country in the world (following China and the United States).
On top of that, organic waste composting without oxygen in landfills gives off methane, a greenhouse gas.
So this wastage doesn’t just take up space in a household bin or restaurant dumpster, it’s a real problem that is contributing to climate change around the world.
This, coupled with the fact that food is simply not reaching those really in need of it, means that the UN has made it one of its Sustain-able Development Goals to halve global food waste by 2030.
Under the FAO, food waste is divided into two categories: food loss caused by losses suffered along the supply chain from farmers to retailers; and food waste caused by consumers.
Malaysia follows these definitions, says Dr Ainu, who is also the secretariat head for the FAO-initiated MYSaveFood programme.
While food loss is due to the lack of technology and inefficient standard operating procedures (SOPs) on farms, food waste is attributed to “consumers’ issues and attitudes”, she explains.
Malaysia still doesn’t have complete data on the extent of the problem. However, Dr Ainu says that Mardi is embarking on an FAO-funded study to compile such data and also research post-harvest losses in the vegetable and fruit segment of the local food industry.
When it comes to food loss, the farming system in Malaysia, Dr Ainu points out, comprises a range of players from smallholders and corporations to big companies.
“Smallholders don’t even know some of the SOPs,” she says, citing other losses, such as from disease or even because a vegetable was odd-shaped and for cosmetic and perception reasons, could not even penetrate the market.
“If you go to a hypermarket, the cucumber on sale is straight but produce on the farms doesn’t always turn out like that,” she says, adding that consumers buy what they think looks nice.
“This is serious. Globally, there is between 30% and 50% of food loss in fruits and vegetables,” she says.
Dr Ainu says from Mardi’s past studies and experience with rice, food loss is found to occur during harvesting, transportation, milling and storage of the grains.
“Even different harvesters and the maintenance of a harvester helped reduce food loss, (and) simple things like using different bags or drying pans,” she says.
Dr Ainu says it’s hard, however, to pinpoint the main culprit behind food loss from farms because this could often be put down to bad communication among industry stakeholders, especially when there is an oversupply of a produce, such as cabbage recently.
“Sometimes, they (the farmers) destroy the extra produce because it is not worth it to sell it.
“This isn’t good practice because surplus produce can actually be diverted.
“Studies from other countries show that there is a need to have more avenues for this produce to go to,” she says.
Dr Ainu gives the example of France, where produce that cannot be sold in hypermarkets is diverted to hotels and charity homes, and where hypermarkets of a certain size are required by law to link up with a food bank.
It doesn’t make sense to Dr Ainu for produce to be thrown away just because they don’t look perfect.
“The nutrition is the same so that people who don’t care what the produce looks like can use it. We should be creative in creating such avenues (in Malaysia),” she says, adding, “one good avenue is Food Bank Malaysia”.
Overseas, there already exists businesses centring on odd-shaped fruits sold at “super prices”, says Dr Ainu, adding that Mardi is looking to work with France and Denmark as well as international agencies on the issue.
Far trickier to tackle is the matter of food waste – the plates of cooked meals that for various reasons end up in the bin.
“I think it is a problem in all developed countries when food is no longer a necessity (but) more of a pleasure. People tend to value food less because they want the best and the tastiest so it’s OK to throw it away, whatever they don’t want,” says Dr Ainu
“And it’s not necessarily the rich who do not value food,” she adds.
Much of the waste occurs during the preparation and processing stage, says Dr Ainu.
“And most of the time, this is due to the lack of planning by the consumers as well as the size of our portions,” she says, adding that many Malaysians would often walk into the grocery store without any idea of what is already in their fridge – and that’s an easy way to over-buy.
Restaurants, points out Dr Ainu, also often lay out bigger portions on plates, as this looks more aesthetically pleasing to their customers.
Ultimately, many Malaysians, says Dr Ainu, have very little idea of what actually goes into food production, hence their lack of appreciation.
“You just don’t go into the market and buy produce. It actually takes lots of effort and resources” to get that produce into the market, she says.
“Households, wet markets and food courts waste the most food,” says Dr Ainu.
For Yanis at least, food wastage is now no longer inevitable, even if this is only a temporary thing during Ramadan.
“Wasting is the way of syaitan (the devil),” he says.