I hate seeing food go to waste. Growing up, I was expected to finish the food that I had put on my plate. I pretty much still hold to that rule with my own children.

My father-in-law is another extreme. He loves food; he’ll do justice to any meal and hates wasting any morsel of good food. Or even bad food for that matter – he’ll cut off the mouldy parts of cheese and eat the rest. British environment minister Liz Truss recently said she would do exactly the same.

Unfortunately, though, the global practice on food waste is simply horrible. Roughly a third of all the food produced worldwide for humans to eat (about 1.3 billion tonnes) gets lost or wasted, according to the United Nations Environ-ment Programme.

How is it that on one hand we’re worrying about how to feed the planet, but on the other hand, we are tossing tons of food away?

In the United States, a colossal 40% of food goes uneaten, according to the Natural Resources Defence Council. The organisation points out that vast resources are required to bring food from farm to fork (or landfill), including 10% of the total US energy budget and 50% of US land.

We don’t do that much better. The amount of food wasted during Ramadan could have fed everyone in Malaysia six times over, or 180 million people, the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Corporation said last year in a report in The Star (“Outrage over food wastage in hotels”, Nation, June 24, 2015). Piled up, the food would have amounted to as many as 30 KLCC buildings.

Even in China, the government has pushed for a reduction in wasteful banquets and unnecessary luxury food items, and ran a “Clean your plate” campaign.

Concern about food waste is growing particularly in Europe, with considerable research on the issue and public awareness campaigns being conducted. A 2012 resolution from the European Parliament committed to reduce food waste by 50% by 2020.

The most sweeping change is a new law passed this year in France. It forbids French supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food and requires them instead to donate it to charities or for animal feed.

This amazing move is down to the drive of one individual, Arash Derambarsh, a city councillor for the Parisian suburb of Courbevoie, plus the power of social media.

In January 2015, Derambarsh began collecting unsold supermarket food together with friends and volunteers. The food was then redistributed to the needy, particularly homeless people.

He then considered, why not make this a law?

“In my mind it was also obvious,” he wrote last week in an article in Britain’s The Independent newspaper. “The cost of living is so high in France, and homelessness widespread. And yet each supermarket throws away more than 50kgs of food every day. That’s 200 tonnes of waste in one year!” Some of that food is still in its wrapping and perfectly edible, thrown out because the product had reached its best-before date.

Derambarsh decided to start a petition at Change.org calling for such a law. More than 200,000 people signed the petition – more than any other petition. And interest on Twitter and Facebook helped galvanise the crusade.

The law, which passed unanimously through the French senate, also forbids supermarkets from deliberately spoiling food to prevent it being eaten by people foraging in the stores’ bins. Supermarkets previously put bleach in bins or locked them up to prevent the poor, students and homeless foraging through them. Stores were also previously receiving rebates from the government for unsold food.

Derambarsh is now urging the presidents of the EU and the US to follow suit.

It’s a great move forward. But hang on, what about us consumers? We’re part of the problem too. We grab the “Buy one, get one free” offers, the discounted items and the bulk buys, and all those other deals – and then waste them.

Many people also throw food out that’s still good to eat, following sell-by and best-before dates. Yet those dates aren’t set in stone and are imposed to the benefit of food handlers. The true shelf life of food items may be much longer. (Ironi-cally, products still on the shelf may carry more health risks, such as bacteria-ridden meat.)

Come on, it’s not rocket science to figure out if something is good to eat. Fresh foods may only need a good sniff or a look! Obviously, foods that are salted, sugared, fermented or vinegared last longer.

The best “buy one, free one” deal is this: if we improve our relationship with the food we buy and keep, we might just improve our diets too.


 

Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.