Food & International Security: Wasted

Globally there is a disproportionate lack of post-harvest food loss related scientific literature, practical research, development projects, funding for agricultural research and extension programs and public attention. Despite this, both governments and the market have failed to address this crucial issue.




Water wars are set to become more widespread in years to come. This is especially relevant to the Middle East, because so many fresh water sources straddle international boundaries. Israel-Palestine negotiations often stumble over the issue of sharing water, and in the past both Jordan and Syria have identified threats to their water supply as a crucial factor in deciding whether they will go to war with Israel.

This situation is expected to worsen: the number of ‘water-scarce’ countries in the Middle East “grew steadily from three in 1955 to eight in 1990”. Now twelve of the world’s fifteen water-scarce countries are in the Middle East and North Africa.

Agriculture is the cause of “70% of all global freshwater withdrawn worldwide”, and this is set to rise, especially as meat consumption in Asia rises. The Middle East is no exception – agriculture is “the main cause of depleting water resources in the region”.

Much of this is in vain – estimates of global food waste have been as high as 30 or 50%. Stuart argues that if 25% of the world’s food is unnecessarily wasted (assuming that between a third and a half is wasted, but that it is not realistic to cut down on all of it), this represents a loss of “approximately 675 litres” of water, “easily enough for the household needs of 9 billion people using 200 litres a day”. The executive director of SIWI said that reducing food waste “is the smartest and most direct route to relieve pressure on water and land resources”. It is thus essential that the world addresses its food waste, if it wants to avoid water wars in the future.

Land is also a great source of conflict. Here too, reducing food waste would alleviate the pressure by liberating vast swathes of agricultural land for other uses. McKinsey Global Institute estimate that ““reducing food waste at the point of consumption in developed countries by 30 percent could save roughly 40 million hectares of cropland”. Their report examines resource productivity opportunities in energy, land, water, and materials that could address up to 30 percent of total 2030 demand” – reducing food waste is considered the third most important measure.

Food scarcity is also linked with conflict. It has been suggested that recent food price spikes played a role in triggering the Arab Spring. Actually, these food spikes were primarily driven by commodity speculation in futures markets rather than by supply-demand factors – similar in behaviour to inflated housing prices. However, in the long-term food prices have been driven up by food waste, which both creates an artificial scarcity by taking food off the market, and places strain on scarce resources which act as agricultural inputs, driving food prices up. In a world where 925 million people are undernourished, it is vital for both humanitarian reasons and security that food waste be addressed.

Finally, reducing food waste is vital to addressing climate change, itself a threat to international security, through its harmful effects of increased droughts, degradation of agricultural land and likelihood of environmental disasters. Stuart estimates that in the UK and US, assuming that consumers waste approximately 25% of their food, “10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions” comes from “producing, transporting, storing and preparing food that is never eaten”. Moreover, the FAO states that “considerably less energy and other inputs are required to conserve food than to produce an equal quantity of food”. For instance, “the total energy cost of good grain storage practice is about one percent of the energy cost of producing that grain”. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels has obvious significance for international security related to oil.

Reducing food waste is also generally economically desirable compared to productivity increases. For instance, in the UK it has been estimated that “increasing the proportion of a farmer’s crop that gets into the supermarket by just 5 per cent can increase the farmer’s profit margins by up to 60 per cent”.

Despite all this, globally there is a disproportionate lack of post-harvest food loss related scientific literature, practical research, development projects, funding for agricultural research and extension programs and public attention.

Both governments and the market have failed to address this issue. Governments have focussed development programmes excessively on productivity increases. The market’s uneven development creates inadequate investment in post-harvest infrastructure in developing countries, and the power of retailers within developed country supply chains enables them to profit from pushing food waste onto suppliers and consumers.

Iran has been the first to address food waste as a geopolitical issue. We must all wake up to the geopolitical significance of food waste: our future security depends on it.


Photo credit: Bobolink

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