The disturbing reality of food waste and how Islamic teachings can help

Lubna Junaid, Environmental Science student, Suriname
Food waste

Headlines about famine in certain parts of the world are distressingly frequent. At the same time, accounts of the rising occurrence of diabetes and obesity – due to overconsumption – in other (developed) parts of the world are also alarming. 

There is enough food produced in the world to feed everyone. (FAO Annual Report, 2018) Still, one in nine people do not have enough to eat; that is 793 million undernourished people. (UNICEF/WHO, Levels and Trends in Malnutrition, 2018). If one-quarter of the food currently lost or wasted could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people.

According to a recent report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), globally, nearly one-third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, equalling a total of 1.3 billion tonnes of food per year.(UN Environment Program, Food Waste Index Report 2021). Almost half of all fruit and vegetables produced are wasted (that is 3.7 trillion apples) 

As the production of food is resource-intensive, food losses and wastes are indirectly accompanied by a broad range of social and economic concerns, along with environmental impacts such as soil erosion, deforestation, water and air pollution, as well as greenhouse gas emissions that occur in the processes of food production, storage, transportation, and waste management.

Food waste occurs along the entire spectrum of production, from the farm to distribution to retailers to the consumer. This waste is categorised differently based on where it occurs: Food “loss” occurs before the food reaches the consumer as a result of issues in the production, storage, processing and distribution phases. Food “waste” refers to food that is fit for consumption but consciously discarded at the retail or consumption phases.

Approximately 88 million tonnes of food is wasted in the European Union each year. In the US, up to 40% of all food produced goes uneaten, and about 95% of discarded food ends up in landfills. Of the estimated 40 million tons of food that go to waste every year, much of it is perfectly edible and nutritious.(Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.”, Natural Resources Defense Council, 2017)

At the retail level, some of the main drivers for food loss stores include: overstocked product displays, the expectation of cosmetic perfection of fruits, vegetables and other foods, oversized packages, the availability of prepared food until closing, expired “sell by” dates, damaged goods, outdated seasonal items and overpurchasing of unpopular foods. (The Value of Retail- and Consumer-Level Fruit and Vegetable Losses in the United States, The Journal of Consumer Affairs, 2011)

While food waste occurs at all stages of the food supply chain, private households have been identified as key actors in food waste generation. In the US, food waste equates to over 100 kilogrammes (220 pounds) of waste per person, 21% of the food bought, costing the average American $1,800 per year. (US Environmental Protection Agency, Wasted Food Report 2018) That equates to every person throwing more than 650 average-sized apples right into the garbage, or rather into landfills, as most discarded food ends up there.

Some ways to handle excess food, provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency in their “Food Recovery Hierarchy” include source reduction, which is the earliest prevention by reducing the overall volume of food produced. Excess food which has already been purchased can be donated to community sites or hunger relief organisations like food banks. Food scraps and waste can be donated to local farmers, who can use them for animal feed and create compost, bioenergy or natural fertilisers.

On 29 September 2020, the first International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste was observed. This came during the global Covid-19 pandemic, which brought about a wake-up call on the need to transform and rebalance the way our food is produced and consumed. The International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste is an opportunity to call to action both the public (national or local authorities) and the private sector (businesses and individuals), to prioritise efforts and initiatives to cut food loss and waste to enhance efficient use of natural resources, mitigate climate change and support food security and nutrition.

Islam and food waste

Islam guides believers to live their lives in moderation, regardless of what they intend to do. If Allah has blessed someone with abundance, one should neither live in a miserly state, nor live in excess as a spendthrift; but be conscious and grateful for the favours of Allah and take the moderate path between the two.

In the Holy Quran, chapter 7, verse 32, Allah the Almighty states:

يٰبَنِيۡۤ اٰدَمَ خُذُوۡا زِيۡنَتَكُمۡ عِنۡدَ كُلِّ مَسۡجِدٍ وَّكُلُوۡا وَاشۡرَبُوۡا وَلَا تُسۡرِفُوۡا ۚ اِنَّهٗ لَا يُحِبُّ الۡمُسۡرِفِيۡنَ

“O children of Adam! look to your adornment at every [time and] place of worship, and eat and drink but exceed not the bounds; surely, He does not love those who exceed the bounds.”

 In chapter 17, verse 28, of the Quran, Allah says:

اِنَّ الۡمُبَذِّرِيۡنَ كَانُوۡۤا اِخۡوَانَ الشَّيٰطِيۡنِ ؕ وَكَانَ الشَّيۡطٰنُ لِرَبِّهٖ كَفُوۡرًا

“Verily, the extravagant are brothers of satans, and Satan is ungrateful to his Lord.”

Islam prohibits wastage in every aspect of one’s life – whether it be with one’s time, one’s energy, one’s wealth, or even one’s food. If Allah has blessed us with more than our needs, we must be grateful to Him, and as a sign of gratitude and appreciation, we must strive to share and distribute the excess among the poor and needy of society.

In chapter 6, verse 142 of Holy Quran, we read:

وَهُوَ الَّذِيۡۤ اَنۡشَاَ جَنّٰتٍ مَّعۡرُوۡشٰتٍ وَّغَيۡرَ مَعۡرُوۡشٰتٍ وَّالنَّخۡلَ وَالزَّرۡعَ مُخۡتَلِفًا اُكُلُهٗ وَالزَّيۡتُوۡنَ وَالرُّمَّانَ مُتَشَابِهًا وَّغَيۡرَ مُتَشَابِهٍ ؕ كُلُوۡا مِنۡ ثَمَرِهٖۤ اِذَاۤ اَثۡمَرَ وَاٰتُوۡا حَقَّهٗ يَوۡمَ حَصَادِهٖ ۫ۖ وَلَا تُسۡرِفُوۡا ؕ اِنَّهٗ لَا يُحِبُّ الۡمُسۡرِفِيۡنَ

“And He it is Who brings into being gardens, trellised and untrellised, and the date-palm and cornfields whose fruits are of diverse kinds, and the olive and the pomegranate, alike and unlike. Eat of the fruit of each when it bears fruit, but pay His due on the day of harvest and exceed not the bounds. Surely, Allah loves not those who exceed the bounds.”

From this verse, we comprehend that food is a primary source of waste. However, not only does Allah command us not to waste, but in the same verse, He also teaches us how to avoid it. Allah instructs us to share our food with the poor — not from leftovers after it’s been to the market, but on the same day, it is harvested.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa has addressed the topic of food waste on many occasions, especially during various Jalsas and Ijtemas. During a speech at Jalsa Salana UK, Huzooraa encouraged us to be mindful of the food we take during Jalsa days and not to waste it. Huzooraa also said that children tend to waste food, so parents should pay attention to serving food to their children appropriately.

For many people in the world, especially where food is often plentiful and less costly, wasting food has become an unidentified habit: buying more food than we need, letting fruits and vegetables spoil at home or taking larger portions than we can eat. Leftovers are often underutilised and food scraps that can still be consumed or composted are tossed away.

These habits put extra strain on our natural resources and damage our environment. When we waste food, we waste the labour, effort, investment and precious resources (like water, seeds, feed, etc.) that go into producing it. Reducing food loss and waste is essential in a world where millions of people go hungry every day. It’s about everyone doing their part, from individuals to large corporations, taking responsibility and making small changes to create meaningful, sustainable changes for the planet. 

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