Cover Photo: Suzanne Mooney/Sarah Gillian Grasset

Ever wondered where all the perfectly edible food we throw away goes? It's time we start being mindful about where it ends up, and why it matters to us—as well as to our future generation

As I research the consequences of food waste, I am reminded of the Pulitzer-winning photograph The Struggling Girl shot by the late photojournalist Kevin Carter. Published by The New York Times in 1994, it depicted a visibly malnourished child who collapsed from exhaustion on her way to a nearby United Nations feeding centre. In the picture, a vulture is shown looming in the barren backdrop, clearly lying in wait. (It was clarified later in 2007 by Spanish newspaper El Mundo that the girl was, in fact, a boy named Kong Nyong, who, according to Nyong’s father, survived the famine but ultimately passed away due to ‘fevers’.)

It was the early 2000s when I chanced upon Carter’s work for the first time—I felt discomfited by what I saw, even though I was too young to understand its bleaker connotations then. Now, older and somewhat less ignorant, I find myself haunted by guilt and shame when I leave a meal unfinished, worse still when I see it untouched and thrown out without a second thought.

Read also: Redza Shahid, Co-Founder Of OiLilin, On Fighting Food Waste

Above Suzanne Mooney's 2018 Ted Talk at Universiti Malaysia Pahang
We are a combined problem.
Suzanne Mooney

“How often does a child die of hunger somewhere in the world?” asked Suzanne Mooney, former BBC journalist and co-founder of non-profit organisation The Lost Food Project (TLFP)—which serves as a food bank that collects quality surplus food from various sources and distributes them to communities in need—during her 2018 TED Talk at Universiti Malaysia Pahang.

The answer, to which her student participants audibly expressed their disbelief in the video, was a horrifying “every five to seven seconds”.

See also: Meet The Youths Representing Malaysia At COP26, The United Nations Climate Change Conference

“We are a combined problem,” Mooney states. “Take the panic buying that happened in the early stages of the pandemic, for example. Though it temporarily decreased the amount of food waste we used to generate before Covid-19—what with people clearing out the aisles when news broke out about how trade was being put on hold as ports shut down because of the lockdown—those very buyers found themselves with way more food than they can finish in one sitting. 

“So, to supply this surge in demand, manufacturers, as well as distributors, end up ordering more products, which then leads to a glut in the supply chain as people are now going back to normal buying behaviour once the initial psychological panic has passed.”

And what this phenomenon proves, Mooney explains, is how unsustainable our food supply chain is. By overusing the finite amount of land we have to grow an overabundance of food (which, more often than not, ends up rotting away in landfills), we’re not just causing soil erosion but also producing the dangerous build-up of methane, a greenhouse gas so potent that according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, has a global warming potential that’s 28 to 34 times higher than carbon dioxide over the next 100 years if left unchecked.

Even if there were preventive measures in place to mitigate our environmental impact, the fact remains that so long as capitalism runs rampant without forethought, surplus food will always exist. As such, the billion-dollar question is how we can better control the output of food waste and how much.

Related: Filmmaker Craig Leeson On Climate Change And His Second Documentary, 'The Last Glaciers'

“Whether it is reflecting on our spending behaviour, setting composting policies in place, or realising just how much every stakeholder in the F&B industry can save financially if there were solid regulations to help companies deal with their surplus product, any change is a big upheaval, especially when you consider the intricacies of supply chains worldwide,” says Mooney. “Compared to when TLFP first started, companies have become more receptive to the idea of working with us as food donors—and it helps that Malaysia now has the Food Donors Protection Act 2020.”

To date, TLFP has nearly 30 donors as well as donate to over 55 charity organisations. What’s more, prior to the pandemic, the NGO had conducted workshops as well as presentations to corporate bodies and schools alike to educate and raise more awareness.

Related: How Social Entrepreneur John-Hans Oei Is Making Farming Cool And Sustainable

“Once, we brought students from the Alice Smith School for a factory tour, and when they saw just how much surplus products were being thrown away, the children were really shocked. They were still talking about it months later. The sad reality is that despite all this waste, people all over the world still experience a shortage of food; where children from families in need can only afford to eat a plate of rice, with just a spoonful of something to give it flavour.” 

The trouble with food waste, Mooney stresses, is how avoidable it actually is; we really must start caring and make the effort.

Read more: Arus Academy Co-Founder Alina Amir On Educating & Empowering The Next Generation

YOU MAY ALSO LIKE

How FatHopes Energy’s Vinesh Sinha Is Turning Food Waste Into Sustainable Fuel

Actress Sukania Venugopal Performs In 'The Year Of No Return', A Singaporean Play About Climate Change

Canvass Bistro & Bar Pushes For Sustainability In Malaysia

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.