As the world food market continues to wobble after the 2007-2008 global food crisis, just what has become of the simple supply and demand theory of production?

THE NEXT time that you are seated at a restaurant and don’t manage to consume all of your meal, spare a thought for the distance your food has traveled – along with the much shorter distance it will now travel to the bin.

It is currently estimated that between 25-50 per cent of all food is wasted between the producer and the consumer. With this in mind consider the fact that 925 million people worldwide are suffering from chronic hunger. The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) confirmed that a child dies of hunger every six seconds due to problems related to undernourishment. Furthermore, according to The Africa Report, whilst every cow in the West receives 2.5 dollars a day in subsidies, every child in the developing world receives some 90 cents.

Waste is fuel

SOME companies here in Finland have taken the initiative, with 2009 seeing the emergence of a mutually beneficial partnership between Finnish energy company St1 and the Hartwall brewery in Lahti.

“The Lahti Etanolix plant is a great real-life example of both dispersed energy production and multilateral collaboration,” explains Mika Aho, Managing Director of St1 Biofuels Oy. Building commenced last year on the company’s fifth Etanolix bioethanol plant, which utilises the by-products of local bakeries, breweries and mills as its feedstock in creating bioethanol. Also integral in creating this fuel additive are yeast and liquids left over in production forwarded from the drinks giant located next door.

This plant joins sites at Lappeenranta and Hamina, where 5,000 tonnes of inedible candy and baked goods waste produces a million litres each of ethanol per year. A third Etanolix site at Närpiö is located on the site of a potato processor, creating a million litres of ethanol annually from potato slurry and starch wastewater.

Serving over 400 petrol stations around Finland, as well as a further 16 in Poland, St1 hopes to have between 10-15 automated bioethanol plants in operation by 2014.

A fair deal?

The current outlook is also grim for European farmers. The EU resolution this year on fair revenues for farmers found that: “Although food prices have risen by 3.3 per cent per year since 1996, the prices farmers receive have only risen by 2.1 per cent whilst operational costs have increased by 3.6 per cent, proving that the food supply chain is not functioning properly.”

The industry is reliant on EU subsidies for its survival. This Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget currently consumes about 55 billion euros of the annual budget of 130 billion euros. One of the biggest criticisms of the CAP, however, is that it encourages European agricultural-businesses to export huge quantities of food worldwide that poor farmers internationally cannot compete with on price.

In light of this 2008-2009 saw the EU backing a plan to provide one billion euros in relief for African farmers, “to help tackle high food prices and boost output.” Furthermore, agriculture generates just 1.6 per cent of EU GDP and employs only 5 per cent of EU citizens. So, this begs the question: who really is benefiting from this situation?

Speculating a better price

According to a recent report by the UNFAO, funds and financial institutions control between 25-35 per cent of all agricultural futures contracts.

Enabling farmers to sell their crops at a future date at a guaranteed price, futures contracts can also be bought and sold by bankers who have little or no involvement in the actual food being traded, but bet on food prices to make money. The global food crisis of 2007-2008 was deemed as a direct result of this, with global investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs estimated to have made a profit of one billion dollars last year through speculating on food.

Meanwhile, Africa has gone from being a net exporter of food in the 1970s to becoming a massive net importer. Some 55 per cent of developing countries are net importers, with almost all countries in Africa currently net importers of cereals. This overwhelming reliance upon world food prices of their staple food means that the growth in food prices worldwide is having a direct impact on people’s ability to feed themselves.

Whilst there is not immediate solution available, one important step in diluting the impact of the global food crisis is to ensure overseas development aid effectively targets smallholder agriculture, creating a sustainable way to boost production.

Waste not

A NEW domestic research initiative here in Finland is seeking to evaluate how much food from the food production chain is going to waste.

“The objective of the unique FOODSPILL project is to study the amount of food waste, its sources and related life-cycle based environmental impacts, and means of reducing waste,” explains Juha-Matti Katajajuuri, project leader and senior researcher for FOODSPILL.

“Special focus is on food waste that can be avoided in households and food service institutions. The main focus is on avoidable food waste. The amount of food waste and its reduction options in manufacturing, transport, storing, distribution and retail will also be assessed.”

The first such research conducted of its kind in Finland, the study aims to create social awareness of food wastage and preventative measures.

“10-20 per cent – according to some researches even 25 per cent – of purchased food is lost in households,” Katajajuuri continues. “However, as the main challenge lies within consumers, the main – and one of the most difficult – targets is really to get people to consume in a more responsible way. This is a challenge especially within younger families.”

“There is a big need to raise the value of food. The contribution of food for household consumption expenditure is much lower compared to years ago.”

Meanwhile, environmental factors also play a significant part in this issue, with such prevention encouraged through changes in behaviour. “Currently, household food purchases account for 15-60 per cent of the environmental impacts of consumption, depending on the environmental impact category, so in the overall economy level the possible effect of minimising food waste is enormous,” he states.

Worldwide waste

  • In the USA, food waste has increased by 50% since 1974, with 40% of all the food produced being thrown out
    • Food is the third largest waste stream after paper and yard waste
    • 8.3 million tonnes of food is thrown away by households in the UK annually
    • City dwellers generally waste the most food, with the worst culprits being single men, aged between 25 and 35
    • Number of people suffering from chronic hunger worldwide: 925 million

That doesn’t make it junk

HAVING accumulated a worldwide reputation for promoting sustainable living, it comes as no surprise to discover that a subculture exists here in Finland that gladly utilises foodstuffs that others have thrown away.

63-year-old Leif Paulin is one such person who has become dependent upon embarking on a regular “dumpster dive” to stock up on sustenance.

“Nowadays I dive food for a living,” he explains. “When my freezer gets empty I go diving to get more food. There is always bread and sometimes sausage and meat, usually also potatoes and fruits. Some milk and yogurts too. I usually just buy tea, salt and milk, soap and electric lamps.

“I dive for food because I do not like throwing edible food for waste. Also, I am a poor person on pension so I try to save money by eating cheap – and nothing is cheaper than eating for free.”

Whilst not a part of any organisation promoting collectivism of the activity, Paulin still usually goes diving with a relative when in search of the ultimate catch.

“You always have to consider what to take and what is dangerous: damaged by heat at summertime, or frozen at wintertime,” he continues. “But I can smell and taste and regard quite well what is safe to eat.”

Furthermore, Paulin’s enthusiasm for recycling extends beyond the kitchen. “I live a recycling lifestyle also in other ways: clothes and shoes second-hand, car second-hand, bicycle second-hand. My hobby is to collect old planes for woodworking. Already I have 200 planes, mostly missing parts repaired or replaced by homemade parts made by myself. The whole house where I live I recycled, as I built it myself from old materials.”

But diving for food remains his bread and butter. “The most memorable dive was when we got 25 kilograms cow filee from Argentina quite freshly dumped,” he remembers. “That winter I lived on rich man’s food for many weeks – I never could afford that food in any other way.”

James O’Sullivan