Eyes bigger than belly: a habit which is harming Latin America

November 12, 2015


A food bank in Argentina received donations from producers

Karina Campos/ World Bank

15% of available food is lost or wasted in the region according to the FAO.

You’re in the supermarket, would you leave an entire bag of food at the checkout after having paid for it? Surely not, unless by mistake. However, globally each year around a third of the total food produced – from farm and field to human consumption – ends up feeding the bin instead.

According to the FAO, consumers in economically developed countries waste some 222 million tons of food each year, enough to fill the equivalent of 2.5 football stadiums every day. What’s more, if it were a country, food which is produced but not eaten would lie in third place after China and the USA in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, releasing some 3.3 gigatonnes each year.

The full picture is one of enormous and unnecessary wastage – economically, environmentally, ecologically and energetically speaking.

“All high-income countries already have between 1.5 and two times the amount of food that they need in their shops and restaurants,” highlighted Tristram Stuart, author and food waste activist. “This attitude of continually producing more and more is mistaken. In fact, it’s one of the biggest threats to global food security in the long term,” he added.

The worst offenders internationally are the US where 40% of food bought is never eaten, and the EU. However, the problem is finding an ever firmer foothold in Latin America.

In numbers, the region is responsible for 6% of global food losses, according to the DAO. And 15% of the available food in Latin America is either lost or wasted, which means the great quantities of energy, water, land and nutrients used to produce it is wasted.

Furthermore, once thrown away, the planet keeps paying the price: as food in landfills decomposes, it produces and emits methane – a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

From a human perspective, throwing away food in the region is doubly wasteful – 8% of Latin Americans don’t have enough to eat.

In fact, it’s estimated that retail food waste alone could meet the nutritional requirements of over 30 million Latin Americans, 64% of those who don’t have enough to eat in the region. 

" To reduce the generation of food waste, we need to encourage responsible consumption. Better management would bring with it economic, environmental and social benefits. "

John Morton

Senior Urban Environment Specialist

Argentina as a case-study

Food matters to us all – we all have to eat. And that’s why the basis for the solution to this global problem isn’t found solely within the halls of government but also in the farms, the distributors, the businesses and in our kitchens.

“To reduce the generation of food waste, we need to encourage responsible consumption,” explained John Morton, Senior Urban Environment Specialist at the World Bank. “Better management would bring with it economic, environmental and social benefits,” he added.

With over half of its territory devoted to agriculture, Argentina is the second largest agricultural exporter in Latin America after Brazil. But of the foodstuffs produced in the country, 16 million tonnes are lost or wasted each year, according to a new study by the Ministry of Agriculture.

The majority – some 14.5 million tonnes – are lost before they reach the consumption stage due to lack of demand, overproduction or simply because they don’t meet the strict aesthetic standards set by the major chains.

And food continues to be wasted as it reaches the consumer. It’s estimated that every Argentinian throws away some 38kg of food each year. Of these kilogrammes, leafy vegetables, fruit and processed meats are the most likely to end up in the rubbish bin. With better management, this wastage and losses can be avoided.

To this end, the World Bank worked with three Argentine municipalities to develop practical solutions to the challenge of solid waste. The initiative focussed on an action pyramid. First, they sought to reduce losses at the source during the production and consumption stages, then they looked to recoup uneaten food which was still apt for human consumption. If neither of these options applied, the foodstuffs were rescued for animal feed, industrial usage, separation and treatment in that order.

The three “R”s

  • Reduce: Prevention is always better than a cure. In food terms, this means preventing food from ending up in the bin. Better aligning production chains with real demand or making them more efficient can help to prevent these losses and reduce their cost on the producer. Across the world innovative initiatives are already being put into practice to recoup these foodstuffs and bring them back into the consumption chain – for example campaigns promoting the purchase of “ugly” fruit in France or machines which separate produce rejected by the commercial sector and turn them into animal or pet food.

In the consumption stage, giving more incentives to hotels, restaurants and businesses to donate unsold food to food banks and soup kitchens could reduce food which is suitable for human consumption from going to waste as well as having a massive social impact.

  • Reuse: Even though an item may not be apt for human consumption doesn’t mean that it is worthless. Such foodstuffs can be converted into feed for animals such as cattle and pigs.
  • Recycle: Finally, if it can’t be reduced or recycled, produce still has an industrial value in terms of the potential for biogas or compost upon decomposition. And separating organic waste at home, opens up the possibility to converting vegetables into compost for municipal or personal use.