Mothers know best. Remember when we were young and our mothers would tell us at table, “Ubusin mo yan, maraming nagugutom na mga bata sa Africa!” And you tried to make sense of that seemingly illogical reminder meant to just make you feel guilty. For technically speaking, our mothers, in that simple statement, were conflating two critical issues in the modern world: food waste and hunger. And for the longest time, these two didn’t seem to be connected. Hunger results from food security problems, and food waste largely from inefficiency in food production and consumption. But experts are now saying our mothers have intuitively been right after all. Food waste and hunger are closely linked.

In truth, the world produces more food than the world needs and yet many of these just go to waste. Or as ethicists ask, how can there be hunger in a world of abundance? UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for instance, estimates that, yearly, the world produces 4 billion metric tons of food which is more than enough to feed 10 billion people; world population stands at 8 billion now. And yet UN agencies also tell us about a billion of the world’s population go hungry every day. True, there are multiple causes of hunger. The major one is war. According to the World Food Programme, 70 percent of those experiencing hunger are situated in war-torn areas like Ukraine, Syria, Sudan and now Gaza. Second, the extreme global climate changes have had negative impact on agriculture. The changing weather systems have made planting and harvesting difficult for the farming sector. Still, despite all these challenges, food is still produced abundantly. And still, hunger persists. Simply put, the problem is not food scarcity but food distribution. Needed food does not reach the poor and the hungry, and like MWSS’ leaking water pipes, the problem is largely due to food waste. 

FAO estimates that a staggering one-third of the food that the world produces yearly just go to waste. In real numbers, that is 1.3 billion metric tons of edible food that could have gone to feed the poor and the hungry. In fact, they say that 50 percent of the food we produce is already wasted before it even reaches our plates. In the developing countries like ours, food waste occurs in food production. Without the necessary storage facilities and efficient technologies, our farms incidentally waste a lot of food products. In contrast, in developed countries, food waste occurs in the consumption end. Groceries waste a lot of food in the name of quality control; restaurants and households discard a lot as well.

That is the big, global picture. A recent study by the Department of Science and Technology, on the other hand, gives us the scenario closer to home. In “Does plate waste matter: A Two-Stage Cluster Survey to Assess the Household Plate Waste in the Philippines,” published earlier this year, researchers found out that 1,717 metric tons of food are wasted in the Philippines every day. They also discovered that the top three food we waste are rice, vegetable and meat. Furthermore, 39 % of Filipino families waste rice, 11% waste vegetables, and 8% waste meat. Chiming in, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that “every Filipino wastes one tablespoon or 14 grams of rice every day, accounting for P23 million a day worth of wasted rice each day (as reported by Manila Bulletin).” How ironic is that in the midst of the rice crisis we have been experiencing in recent months? Indeed, how irresponsible of us, when we think about the many households in the country that go hungry every day! A recent SWS survey on hunger places that number at 11.8 percent of Filipino families or three million households (January 2023). 

In its study, the DOST further qualifies the guilty. Greater food waste, they say, occurs in households with five or more members. On the other hand, there’s more rice wastage in homes led by seniors as they consume less of it. Finally, there’s also a lot of food waste in “higher wealth status” households; like their counterparts in developed countries, they shop for more food than they can consume and the food gets spoiled over time and gets discarded. Although the DOST research already paints a bleak picture, this does not include food waste from restaurants or fast food eateries or our favorite eat-all-you-can place. That will surely double or even triple our already staggering figures. But this notwithstanding, head-researcher Dr. Imelda Angeles Agdeppa laments: “millions of Filipinos under poverty and experiencing food insecurity are struggling to be fed, and the food that is simply thrown away or discarded might actually be enough to feed them.”

We are of course only scratching the surface of the problem here. Food security and food waste are also grave ecological issues.  Agriculture, poultry, and livestock, which produce our food eat up most of our land, water, feeds, and so on. As an economic sector, they also eat up a lot of our precious fossil fuels. Food waste, on the other hand, in our garbage bins or landfills produce methane that is harmful to the atmosphere. But we end on a high note. There are purportedly existing laws in the Philippines to address the issue of food waste. Expectedly though, like many laws, they are observed in the breach. However, more and more individuals and groups from the private sector and civil society are taking up the challenge of food waste. There are noteworthy Church initiatives as well. Fr. Manoling Francisco, SJ, for example, has been a bridge between farmers and consumers in order to save the former’s agricultural products from spoilage and wastage. He buys fruits and vegetables from small and medium farmers and make these available to households in the Metropolis. Fr Bienvenido Nebres, SJ, on the other hand, has partnered with Gawad Kalinga to establish and organize kitchens all over the country. The kitchens are run by mothers from low-income families and feed thousands of malnourished students from poor families per chance to boost their performance in school. But these initiatives underscore one thing: as consumers of food, we all are responsible for our plates, and together, we can be more responsible in eradicating food waste and hunger. Or to slightly modify a famous saying, we are what we eat, or not eat!