woman begging in the street

Food waste and hunger: A colossal embarrassment for the well-fed

Food waste and hunger should not go together—the first smacks of profligacy, the second of neglect.

Food waste and hunger are two concepts that alone should not happen. Present them together in a phrase, and we have another classic human contradiction. Neither needs to exist, and certainly not together.

We grow enough food worldwide to feed everyone well, thanks mostly to the agricultural revolutions that have absorbed fossil fuel inputs and channelled nature into agriculture. There is no reason from the supply side for anyone to be food insecure.

Yet according to the World Food Program, at least 828 million people are food insecure and don’t know where to get their next meal. Imagine that as one in every ten people you see on your morning commute.

And some of them might be in your train carriage. 

I never remember going to bed hungry except for the self-imposed stomach pangs from my latest fad diet. The fact that I diet at all is a giveaway. I have access to too much food or choose to consume the wrong kinds.

I am one lucky bugger. 

All I have to do is carry the food waste into the trash and, once a week, put the trash can where the truck can collect it from the sidewalk. 

Such flippancy defines the problem of food waste and hunger. 

rotting potatoes as a n example of food waste and hunger

The truth about global hunger

Here is the reality in 2021 as described by the United Nations in their online chronicle 

Each day, 25,000 people, including more than 10,000 children, die from hunger and related causes. Some 854 million people worldwide are estimated to be undernourished, and high food prices may drive another 100 million into poverty and hunger. The risks are particularly acute among those who must spend at least 60 per cent of their income on food: the urban poor and displaced populations, the rural landless, pastoralists and the majority of smallholder farmers.

John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs

I am one seriously lucky bugger. 

I live in Australia, where the average household spends 10% of its income on food. This means that food prices can double, and whilst I may complain, it is well within my means to afford the extra cost.

What happens if food prices double and your current spending on food is 60% of your income?

Yes, there is not enough money to spend on food, let alone anything else.

This is the caricature of food insecurity. Poor people live hand to mouth in weak economies.

I can remember back to the 1980s and Live Aid with famous pop stars earnestly singing Feed the World with its horrendously patronising neo-colonial lyrics like “There’s a world outside your window. And it’s a world of dread and fear” and “Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

In other words, hunger happens to other people who are probably black or brown and live far away. But the messagING worked. Live Aid raised $127 million (equivalent to $350 million in 2022) for famine relief and earned Bob Geldof a knighthood.

It is very different now. 

Not all the food-insecure people live in remote corners of the world. Today they exist in every country.

According to the USDA, 34 million people in the United States are food insecure—one in every ten people, the global average. It gets worse. One in six people, 53 million, turned to food programs in 2021.

In 2018, the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) supported roughly 40 million Americans, with 9.2% of American households receiving SNAP benefits during 2017. 

I’ll say that again, 40 million Americans.

To get your head around such a large number, the population of Canada as of July 2021 was 38 million.

In Australia, a country of 24 million people with a 10% average spend on food, over five million people experience food insecurity yearly, and one-quarter are children.

Just to simplify the 828 million people globally or the 40 million Americans, think of it as one in ten people undernourished.

As I said, next time you are on a bus in the rush hour, look around. At least 6 of the people on the bus represent the global undernourished. Then add another 2 to cover those malnourished from too much of the wrong food.

One in ten people, one in six kids, should be unacceptable statistics.

Indian man clearing away food waste

So what about food waste and hunger?

Check his quote from economist Kate Raworth’s excellent book Doughnut Economics

Food consumption is deeply skewed too. Around 13% of people worldwide are malnourished. How much food would it take to meet their caloric needs? Just 3% of the global food supply. To put that in context, 30%–50% of the world’s food gets lost post-harvest, wasted in global supply chains, or scraped off dinner plates and into kitchen bins. Hunger could, in effect, be ended with just 10% of the food that never gets eaten.

Kate Raworth, Economist

It is staggering if what Raworth says is true that 3% of the global food supply would feed the undernourished and that the percentage is so low because just half of the food produced gets eaten.

Why would we grow so much if it doesn’t get eaten? It seems bizarre. 

Reliable evidence for these numbers are hard to estimate because of the complexity of the global food system. But there are many opportunities for spoilage and loss from harvest to transport, storage, processing, and retail. Once the consumer obtains the food, there are more losses in storage, cooking and what gets left on the plate by the picky child unable to eat his greens.

In the global supply chain, losses happen as the agricultural produce is transported, processed and prepared. 

Food losses for the 2 billion or so people in 500 million households living in rural areas of developing nations who survive as “smallholder” farmers, growing their food on  less than 2 ha, happen as the crops and livestock are produced and stored.

What we know is that the opportunity for waste exists.

Suppose the food waste and hunger connection is out by a factor of 3, and the real number to feed the hungry is 10% and not 3%. 

Given this conservative estimate, cutting the food waste numbers by a third would provide enough food.

This should be a colossal embarrassment to everyone who goes to bed well-fed.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Be embarrassed, then be angry and demand better of yourself. 

Everyone must eat. We all need food to be available, accessible, usable and reliable to be food secure.  As the fossil fuel energy pulse begins to fade, 6 billion of us rely on the global food supply chain to provide this food security.

It is a precarious situation and yet we allow food waste and hunger to be in the same sentence.

Sure, have a go at the politicians and the corporates we let behave in ways that got us into this unholy mess. But remember that the social and economic systems in which these villains thrive are of our making.

If you go to bed on a full stomach, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. Many people are not so fortunate. 

Be mindful of your food waste and hunger.

And if you are one of the lucky ones, be grateful for the meals you enjoy and never take your food security for granted.

Hero image from photo by Karthikeyan K on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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