IS food in Malaysia so cheap that we take it for granted? When we eat at the mamak shops, at coffee shops, hawker centres, cafes, restaurants or hotels do we ask about the size of the portions?
Do we tell servers to give us less rice or less noodles or less of whatever we don’t want or like so that we don’t waste it?
Do we feel a tad guilty when we look at our unfinished plate of food? Do we think of those in our country who are hungry and might not have eaten for the day? And do we ask ourselves what all that waste is doing to the environment?
Dr Anni Miten does.
The executive director of the South-East Asia Council for Food Security and Fair Trade (Seacon) says she feels sad at the way so many people in this country take food for granted.
“There is no more element of people enjoying food sitting around appreciating the food or even asking where the food has come from.’’
She thinks “sharing food is something noble and part of our culture” and is somewhat exasperated at how much food people waste.
When Miten orders lamb at a particular restaurant she frequents she asks for only two pieces instead of the normal portion because that is all that she can eat. She is happy to pay full price for it because she knows she did not waste.
“If you don’t want the bread or potato that comes with your food , just tell them not to give it to you even though the price of your meal is still the same. Or tell them to pack it and take it home with you. Don’t waste.
“This is our responsibility as consumers.’’
Malaysians waste 15,000 tonnes of food daily – piled up, that would come up to about 16 KLCCs!
The Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) estimates that of that amount wasted, 3,000 tonnes is actually untouched, edible and should not even have been thrown away.
All this makes Miten question how much of the country’s RM45bil food import bill for last year was really efficiently utilised and how much of it went to waste.
“This is a cost to the country. And the waste has to be treated,” she points out.
This is one reason why she wonders if it is wise for the Government to control the price of some food items, like rice. Because the price of rice is subsidised, it’s a cheap food item and people don’t think twice about leaving it on their plates – throwing it away, in other words.
“If there is no more price control on rice, will it make Malaysians jump?” she wonders.
The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) policy officer Dr Daneswar Poonyth, however, says the government shouldn’t be blamed.
“The Government is making food affordable – but does it mean that because it is made affordable you waste it? It is going to cost the Government more down the road to manage the waste. And the government never told you to waste food.”
He points out that in 2007, 2008 and 2009 when global food prices went up, globally everyone adjusted and went from buying high quality to low quality. But not in Malaysia, the adjustment was not there.
“People shouted that prices were increasing but they did not adjust their consumption and basket. We say when food prices increase, it will reduce the waste. But here in Malaysia when prices increase, waste increases. Economics fails here,” he says.
At Tuesday’s MySaveFood Forum organised by Mardi, solid waste management company SWCorp said that, according to its findings, Malaysians end up throwing away a quarter of what they buy in a month because the food has expired or gone bad or is wasted during preparation or consumption – see details in graphic on right.
As the figures in the graphic show, this works out to RM2,700 a year – “And that’s a lot of money,” points out Agustina Fithri Kasmaruddin, an SWCorp officer.
Agustina is a working mother and she has come to realise that buying food for a week just doesn’t work. Some days she has to work late, some days she gets stuck in a traffic jam, so on those days her kids buy their food. So nowadays, Agustina buys fresh food every two to three days. That way she doesn’t waste. And any leftover vegetables are fed to the family’s pet rabbit.
FAO’s Daneswar says, individually, people might not feel it so much when they save RM100, but that saving adds up and helps the Government: “If a million Malaysians do that, it reduces the cost of imported food coming into the country.
He says the target is to reduce the amount of food that goes into the bin.
“We can’t deny that Malaysians love food. It is a culture. But if I love something, should I throw it away? I should cherish it.”
Chefs are trained about food safety rules, he says, “So why can’t a similar training be given to them to reduce portion sizes? It would be a gain-gain, for restaurants and consumers.”
In many developed countries, people have to pay for the waste they put out.
Daneswar says in Rome people are given a weight limit of the waste coming out from their house. If they put out an extra plastic bag to be collected, it will be weighed and they will be billed for the excess waste at the end of the month.
Seacon’s Miten says it took South Korea more than 20 years to change people’s attitude to waste.
The Government first got people to separate their waste. Then 15 years later, they banned organic waste in landfills, which meant that people had to manage their own kitchen waste. This made some neighbourhoods get into composting their waste for fertiliser.
Then the Government tightened waste regulations even more, Miten says, explaining how the authorities introduced a smart card and weighed whatever came out of the kitchen and charged people accordingly – “So you’d find people even squeezing all the water and liquid out of the waste.’’
Changing behaviour in Malaysia is not going to be easy.
“Once they feel the pinch, they will do it,’’ says Miten.