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Food Waste, Overeating Threaten Global Security

girl eats fruit cake
girl eats fruit cake

Everyone knows that we eat too much — we're bombarded with warnings about the obesity epidemic every day. But all those extra calories are not only a threat to our waistlines; they're a threat to global security as well.

Everything that well-off people in the developed world eat — or even worse, throw away — is food that isn't feeding the impoverished and hungry of the developing world. Pope Francis has equated food waste with "stealing from the table of the poor and the hungry."

In 2011, 1.3 billion tonnes of food, or about one third of all the food produced globally, was lost or wasted annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. In developed countries, the average person wastes about 100 kilograms of food every year.

“Some the food is lost during the production stage to pests, some is lost during harvesting, some is lost during processing, some is lost in storage. But a considerable amount is lost in people’s homes," explains Tim Benton, a professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds.

"In the U.K., we end up throwing away 20 to 30 per cent of the food that we buy. And when you add it all up, it’s quite frightening," he says. "The waste that we throw away in Europe and North America is about equal to all of the food that sub-Saharan Africa produces.”

Prof. Benton, who also holds the title of U.K. Champion for Global Food Security, discusses the situation in a feature interview with Michael Enright on CBC radio's The Sunday Edition this week.

And he says that food waste only one problem. Overeating is another.

Research shows that based on average weight gain through adulthood, people are consuming 20 to 30 per cent too many calories. So eating a healthier, more balanced diet would not only help tackle the obesity epidemic, it would also take as much as a third of the caloric demands out of the global food chain.

“If everyone in the world chose to live like your average North American, it would require four Earths to produce all the necessary food,” Prof. Benton says.

You might not notice it on your grocery bill, but pressure on the global food chain is having an impact.

Between 2006 and 2008, the average world prices for food skyrocketed, including these staples:

- Rice 217 per cent

- Wheat 136 per cent

- Corn 125 per cent

- Soybeans 107 per cent

Food shortages have already caused massive social and political unrest, contributing to revolutions that toppled governments in Haiti and Madagascar in 2008 and 2009, after the global price spikes. And the riots in Tunisia that triggered the Arab Spring were initially dismissed by the government as just another round of protests over the rising cost of bread, which had sporadically hit the country for decades.

The World Food Programme estimates that 870 million people worldwide do not have access to enough food to be healthy.

And with the global population expected to increase 50 per cent, or three billion people, by 2050, Prof. Benton warns that it's only going to get worse.

“We’re going to have all those extra mouths to feed," he says. "We’re going to have less land on which to produce food because of all those extra people, and our ability to produce it will be further hampered by climate change.”

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