By: Dr. Rulia Akhtar
Food wastage remains a significant issue globally, particularly in developed nations, exerting adverse effects on the environment. The repercussions of food waste extend to our food system, the environment, biodiversity, natural resources, and human health, along with escalating social and economic costs. Minimizing food loss and waste is a critical and immediate measure to establish food systems that are both healthier and more environmentally sustainable. The food production chain involves several factors that lead to soil erosion, deforestation, water and air contamination, CO2 emission, and trash disposal. These factors include manufacturing, distribution, packing, and waste disposal. The negative effects include issues like soil erosion, famine aggravation, water scarcity, biodiversity loss, global warming, and a reduction in the amount of food available for use by humans.
A staggering nearly two billion tons of food intended for human consumption are wasted or lost annually, which is equal to one-third of the total amount produced. This is especially depressing since 1 in 8 people globally do not have access to enough food, and that the conversion of land for agricultural use is the main threat to biodiversity worldwide. Every day, an astonishing 16,688 tonnes of food are wasted in Malaysia, enough to feed nearly two million people up to three times a day. Food waste, according to the World Wildlife Fund, also involves squandering the water and energy required for its cultivation, harvesting, packing, and transportation. Moreover, improper food waste disposal in landfills releases harmful substances for human health, such as, greenhouse gas emission, hydrogen sulphide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
Food waste discharges can harm people’s health both directly and indirectly. Concerning the immediate threats, incorrectly disposed of food establishes bacterial breeding grounds, drawing rodents and parasites that disperse infections and illnesses. These illnesses are significant causes of poor health, poor diets and obesity have been linked to type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart attack, stroke, and various cancers. As a result, these health effects show up as a rise in respiratory problems and both moderate and severe headaches. The consequences for human health have prompted the creation of international goals and policies around food waste. As part of the SDGs 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), the Food and Agriculture Organisation aims to cut the amount of food waste that occurs at retail and consumer levels worldwide in half by 2030.
This type of trash poses serious health security hazards because of its unique makeup, which fosters the growth and survival of microbial diseases. The consequences of global food waste on human health and well-being are manifold, whether they are direct or indirect. For example, methane gas is released during the fermentation stage of food waste, which contributes to climate change. Additionally, during this process of fermentation stage, pollutants that are released into the atmosphere may expose individuals to short-term or long-term biological and microbiological hazards. The aerobic breakdown of organic solids releases a variety of organic compounds that are volatile, including chemicals, ethanol, organic compounds ketones, and esters. These molecules have an immediate effect on human health by changing breathing patterns. People who live in areas where air pollution is prevalent due to emissions from the breakdown of biodegradable waste, including ammonia, are more likely to experience headaches and respiratory issues. Particularly dangerous to health are hydrogen sulphide, aromatic chemicals, and halogenated compounds, which can disrupt several organ systems and increase the risk of cancer and death. Food waste reduction has a possibility to reduce human-generated carbon dioxide emissions by 6% to 8%.
In Malaysia, tackling food waste and the emissions it causes requires a multifaceted strategy including several stakeholders, such as companies, consumers, and government agencies. There are numerous options to take into consideration:
First, working with a food bank can make it easier to provide supplies and ready-to-eat meals that would otherwise be thrown away. Another tactic is to turn organic food waste into biofuel, which may be used to heat buildings and power automobiles. To reduce the emission of common food waste gases during the production of biofuel, gas capture technology is essential. In addition to helping to mitigate the climate change effects of using conventional gasoline, by capturing and converting the majority of emissions from wasted food through power, this strategy aligns with both Goal 7 and Goal 13.
Installing a biofilter or bio trickling filter can also successfully lower gaseous emissions, including the dangerous hydrogen sulphide, from composted food waste. The installation of a bio filter or bio trickling filter is another effective way to reduce gaseous emissions from composted food waste, including the harmful H2S. Since food waste is a persistent issue in Malaysia, it needs to be appropriately addressed if the country is to meet the SDGs by 2030.
Reducing food waste improves human nutrition and well-being in addition to the obvious economic and environmental benefits.
The author is a Research Fellow at the Ungku Aziz Centre for Development Studies (UAC), Universiti Malaya.