High cost of wasting food

THE Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the issue of food security. In July, a joint analysis by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP) revealed that 27 countries are at high risk of – and in some cases are already seeing – significant food security deterioration in the coming months, including rising numbers of people pushed into acute hunger. These included countries in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Middle East. Fortunately for us, Malaysia isn’t in the list. However, Malaysians are still worried about not having enough food during this crisis.

When the announcement to impose the movement control order (MCO) to curb the spread of Covid-19 was made, people immediately worried about whether they would have enough food throughout the period – and a run for supermarkets, grocery stores and other retail outlets ensued.

Actually, food crisis is an ongoing problem worldwide. We can blame climate change, conversion of farm lands for industrial usage or even water shortage for the problem. But human consumption is also a huge contributor to food insecurity. In this aspect, food waste or food that is not eaten is one of the key factors.

Putting food on the plate is simple for most Malaysians. With prices being quite affordable, Malaysians tend to discard food without much thought. This is evident in the amount of leftovers at food outlets and even at home, especially during large gatherings.

From 2013 to 2018, the cost of food imports in Malaysia increased from RM43bil to RM54bil. The imported items included rice, beef, lamb, mango, cabbage, chilli and coconuts, which are parts of our staple food.

Our consumption habits must be corrected in order to prevent food waste. Experience shows that passive awareness campaigns such as talks and handouts are less impactful in achieving the required behaviour change. More active campaigns, such as educational sessions that present information directly to individuals and are designed to reach multiple groups, are more successful. Education from childhood is the most effective way to build food-saving behaviour.

Using a food diary could also be an efficient tool for individuals to monitor their leftovers after each meal. Using a food diary app would make monitoring easier, as we found out after conducting a survey on food waste involving 279 participants in Penang. The participants were required to record their lunch and dinner for five days in a week. The details included the types of food they consumed, amount of food they finished and the types of leftovers.

Seventy-four percent of participants recorded leftovers in their food diaries for five consecutive days, 27.3% believed that using food diaries increased their awareness of food waste to some extent, and 13.8% reported that they would change their dietary habit and reduce food wastage.

As a public measure to reduce food waste, charges could be imposed by the relevant authorities on the amount of leftovers. Charges on food leftovers have significantly reduced waste in several countries, including South Korea where the government uses legislation and technology to solve the problem.

South Koreans must categorise their food wastes before putting them into specific bags with RFID chips for disposal. Due to the high price of the waste bags, people have found more efficient ways to handle food waste, such as recycling and composting.

From an environmental perspective, solving the food waste problem can reduce pollution as well.


Graduate School of Business

Universiti Sains Malaysia


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