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Wasted mooncakes: why half of the food produced never reaches our stomachs

As Chinese New Year approaches, now is the time to think again about the food we waste and throw away.

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People in Hong Kong threw away an estimated 2.5 million moon-cakes after the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival last year (Image by Franz Patzig)

A few years ago, a Chinese TV programme broadcast a story about a group of primary schoolchildren’s homework project where they recorded how much their families spend over Chinese New Year. 
 
Ten-year-old Zhu Yue mentioned that her family spent as much as 8,000 yuan in eight days, with 40% of the outgoings on food ingredients. However, she said they had to waste part of the food, no matter how hard they had tried to finish it, because they bought too much. Most of the children in her class had similar tales.
 
Although it is frequently ignored, food waste is a major environmental issue. As much as 50% of all the food produced around the world never reaches a human stomach, according to a report published today. The reasons include: inadequate storage facilities, overly strict sell-by dates, consumer demand for cosmetically produced food and a growing tendency towards over-buying and wasting food.
 
With a growing global population and competing demands for land and resources such as water, there likely to be greater pressure to reduce food waste.
 
For example, demand for water in food production is expected to reach 10-13 trillion cubic metres a year by 2050 - around three times more than the total human use of freshwater today. Already today, around 550 billion cubic metres of water is wasted globally in growing crops that never reach the consumer. A figure that we can ill afford to see rise. 
 
For consumers, the biggest reasons for the waste are either that we prepare too much food, or we don't use it in time before it goes stale.
 
The UK government campaign Love Food Hate Waste has estimated that people in Britain threw away the equivalent of 2 million turkeys, 5 million Christmas puddings and 74 million mince pies over the Christmas period.
 
Similarly, people in Hong Kong were estimated to have thrown away 2.5 million moon-cakes after the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival last year. If these were lined up end to end, the cakes would equal the entire length of the city’s underground network, according to the Hong Kong NGO Green Power.
 
In addition to the wasted moon-cakes, the citizens in Hong Kong are estimated to have wasted a further 3.5 million meat steaks and 3.6 million sausages after BBQ-ing. 

The irrigation water used globally to grow food that is wasted would be enough for the domestic needs (at 200 litres per person per day) of 9 billion people - the number expected on the planet by 2050.
 
Much of the food we waste as consumers is avoidable. Love Food Hate Waste estimate as much as 60% of the food wasted by consumers in the home is avoidable, with better food storage and recipes.
 
It is not just at home that food waste can be avoided either. 
 
Aside from festive events, everyday dining out can be a substantial source of food waste. According to a report by the British Sustainable Restaurant Association, Too Good To Waste, a British restaurant may waste an average of four tons of food a year. About 65% of the waste comes from preparation peelings, off cuts and anything ruined while cooking, and another 30% are leftovers from customers’ plates.
 
In China, research of more than 2,700 restaurant tables in cities, by the Chinese College of Food Science and Nutritional Engineering, estimates as much as 8 million tonnes of protein and 3 million tonnes of fat is wasted from customer leftovers. That’s enough to feed 200 million people for a year.
 
So as you stock up on food or size up a restaurant menu this Chinese New Year, you might want to think again about food waste and how you can avoid it.

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