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Food for Thought: Less Food Waste, A Happier Planet

The global food system accounts for 25% of global greenhouse gases, yet it does not even feed us effectively.

All kinds of vegetables and fruits
A third of the food we produce globally goes to waste each year

Source: Oleg Magni [12]

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Jakarta — You go grocery shopping and there, you notice that bananas are on sale so you decide to buy more than usual. Ten days later, you find some of the bananas you bought have turned brown and mushy. Instead of making a smoothie or banana bread, you quickly dump them, thinking it would be much more convenient to just buy new ones at the grocery store.

We've all been there and done that; it's not exactly uncommon. In fact, a third of the food we produce globally goes to waste each year, either before or during harvest, during shipment, or after it has been bought [1]. That's about 1.8 billion tonnes of wasted food. In a cruel twist, even though we are wasting this much food, up to 815 million people worldwide go to bed hungry [2].

Food wastage is also a major contributor to climate change. If global food waste was a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gas just behind China and the U.S, mostly in the form of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that has a global warming potential 25 times higher than carbon dioxide [3].

While food wastage is a global problem, some countries are producing more food waste than others, including Indonesia who is the second biggest food waster in the world after Saudi Arabia, wasting nearly 13 million tonnes of food each year—the same amount that can be used to feed 28 million people [4,5]. Ironically, 7.6% of Indonesia's 260 million population suffer from malnutrition. On top of that, more than 36% of children under five suffer from stunting as a result of prolonged malnutrition [6].

All this begs the question: why is Indonesia wasting so much food? Last week, we held an Instagram Live with Komunitas Surplus (@komunitas.surplus) to shed some light into this issue, including the causes and also potential solutions. Here is a brief summary of our discussion.


The Causes

1. Lack of Infrastructure, Inadequate Transport Conditions and Poor Storage Facilities

Like many other developing countries in the world, Indonesia lacks proper infrastructure between food-producing regions and major population centres, which causes delays in transportation and thus generating food loss [6]. There is also a shortage of storage facilities. Local seafood industry requires about 14 million tonnes of cold storage facilities, but currently only has 7.5 million tonnes. Similar gaps can be seen for processed chicken meat in addition to fruits and vegetable industries [7].

Indonesia lacks proper infrastructure, transport conditions and storage facilities
Indonesia lacks proper infrastructure, transport conditions and storage facilities

Source: Indonesia-Investments [7]

2. Indonesian Mindset and Its Food Culture

International trade has caused a seismic shift in our food consumption patterns and one of its most prominent benefits is greater access to products that otherwise could not be easily found domestically.

But what if we get too dependent on imported items? There is a common belief shared by local consumers that imported items are somehow better than locally-sourced produce, whether it's quality, taste or safety. According to TheJakartaPost, food waste generated in Indonesia exceeds the amount of food it produces, which is likely due to food imports [8]. The problem with this mindset is that not only does this harm our local producers and endangers their livelihoods, but our overdependence on food imports can also increase our carbon footprint, thus worsening global warming.

A person holding a phone trying to post his/her food on Instagram
Food trends have become increasingly centred around what is Instagrammable rather than taste or value.

Source: ready made [13]

On top of that, our very social culture values food not for its nutrients, but for its extravagance in social settings. Take weddings in Indonesia for example. They are the epitome of abundance, yet at the same time, it's quite overwhelming to find out that 90% of the food supplies to these joyous occasions end up in garbage boxes [5].

And social media is partly at fault for this. For the past few years, food trends have become increasingly centred around what is Instagrammable rather than taste or value. "Food is a monster of an opportunity trend," said Alex Tonner, co-founder of Collectively, a social media influencer marketing agency. "The idea of 'more, huge, crazy' is almost necessary now: everything in excess...." [9].

While it's easy to be consumed with the number of likes we get on social media, let's not forget how we choose to eat can also make the mountain of food waste in our landfills get even higher.

3. Cosmetic Imperfections ("ugly produce")

Cosmetic standards are a significant source of food waste, both before and after harvest. Across Europe, 50 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables are discarded each year even before they leave the farm, mostly because they are misshapen or have some blemishes, which will not sell in our aesthetics-obsessed markets [10].

Supermarkets won't accept them, other retailers won't and neither will we. Here's one way to put it into perspective. Imagine you're in a supermarket. Two fruits capture your attention, but you notice one has a big lump that breaks its skin. Still, both are perfectly edible. Which one would you choose for your breakfast tomorrow?


Looking at the reasons above, it makes sense why Indonesia has been generating so much food waste. Therefore, it's paramount for everyone to work together and tackle this issue. Here are some ways that Project Planet and Komunitas Surplus have come up with to start reducing our food waste.

For Consumers

  1. Thinking before buying anything; at supermarket, restaurant and even at home where apps like GoFood and GrabFood have made our ordering process all the more convenient. Ask yourselves these questions: is it local or imported? How much energy goes into producing it? Is it grown organically? How far did it travel to the store or table? What will I cook this with? That way, you would know whether you are buying it out of impulse or necessity.

  2. Appreciating our locally-sourced produce. By purchasing and eating more locally-sourced produce, we are not only lowering our carbon footprint, but we're also securing the livelihood of our local farmers.

  3. Throw less food away. Always plan ahead. Make a shopping list and meal plans. Store food with a quick expiry date at the very front so you won't forget.

  4. Compost your organic waste. By composting, you can reduce greenhouse gases because it doesn't need to be taken to landfills (less CO2) and no methane is released into the atmosphere [11].

For Retailers

  1. Stop implementing high cosmetic standards. Over the years, food retailers have embraced high cosmetic standards, leading them to reject even marginally imperfect-looking vegetables and fruits. To curb food waste, these retailers can sell wonky vegetables and misshapen fruits at discount prices.

  2. Saving food from the "use-by" date. The goal is to distribute food that has surpassed its "use-by" date (yet still edible) to charities that would otherwise end up in landfills.

For Government

  1. Enforce existing regulations and impose penalties on violators. The EIU report recommends the government to start imposing fines on food wasters, while simultaneously offer incentives to households and businesses that utilise recoverable edible food for human consumption, animal feed, industrial uses, and anaerobic digestion and composting [6].

  2. Expand infrastructure and also storage facilities development. The government should make infrastructure development as a top priority in efforts to reduce food loss in addition to building storage facilities.

  3. Educate both farmers and consumers about food waste. The government should take the initiative to educate local farmers on how to store their produce properly to avoid food loss through premature expiration. Similarly, they should also make it imperative in schools to teach the importance of not wasting food through various activities, such as learning how to compost.

Wasting less food isn't just going to happen overnight. But becoming more conscious of how we buy food and how we eat can really help us to waste less. According to BBC, if we stopped wasting food altogether, we could eliminate 8% of our total emissions [1]. This means we're not only fighting world hunger, but we're also fighting global warming: a win-win.


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