Op-Ed Contributors

Think about the hungry before wasting food

By Haya Bint al Hussein (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-11-17 07:55

Hunger now scars the lives of more than 1 billion people across the world. So world leaders gathered for a UN summit in Rome on Nov 16 to debate what to do about it.

As a former goodwill ambassador for the World Food Programme (WFP), I can sense how the meeting may go. There will be more media on the politicians than the substance, an abundance of speeches, and a series of oddly fancy luncheons - with more speeches. At a similar luncheon, I remember wondering: What if I could magically transfer the 1,000 calories in this vanilla souffl in front of me to a malnourished child begging in the slums of Nairobi? Sharing the extra calories eaten in the US or Europe alone would end hunger in Africa.

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These gratifying fantasies highlight some terrible inequities in how the world handles its food supply. In 2006, WFP prepared, but never publicly released, a map charting food consumption.

Dubbed "The Fat Map", it shows where the world's calories go. Nations grow or shrink based on how much the average person eats. Depending on your perspective, it maps starvation or overeating.

The mal-distribution of food goes deeper than even the "Fat Map" implies. In India, for example, more than 300 million overweight people coexist with another 300 million who starve.

Chronic diseases like diabetes and heart ailments that often stem from overeating are growing at a far faster rate in developing countries than in the more prosperous West. In my own region, the Middle East, obesity is skyrocketing, especially among young people.

In 2007-08, a global food crisis surprised us as prices soared. But would the crisis have been as severe if we were not so accustomed to wasting the food we have?

Globally we are moving to an "energy morality" with young people lobbying against wasting energy - yet there is no "food morality", even though food is organic energy. We sit by and watch each other overeat and discard food without a thought. Extravagant overindulgence is viewed as hospitality and many assume that being a good parent requires that we force those we love to eat.

Eating is even a competitive sport. Each Fourth of July in New York, a young man named Joey Chestnut takes on his Japanese archrival Takeru Kobayashi at a hot dog eating contest - last year Chestnut wolfed down 68 hotdogs in 10 minutes - more than a week's supply of calories for a hungry African. At one point, Kobayashi even had a hot dog eating contest with a large brown bear - a bizarre hit on YouTube. (The bear won.)

We pay dearly for this over-consumption. Recent calculations set obesity-related health spending just in the US at $150-200 billion - more than all foreign aid worldwide. The cost of extra medical care for the obese runs as high as $1,400 a person a year. More than 2 billion people do not earn that much in a year.

Food losses are another reflection of our embrace of excess. Each year, food waste costs the average Briton more than 400 pounds a year, while US households lose or discard 14 percent of their food. America's supermarkets and restaurants discard another 27 million tons. I suspect the amount of food purchased - but not consumed - is high in most cities in China too, because retailers and restaurants still sell food in portion sizes and packages encouraging excess eating and waste.

It is time to recognize the energy, health, and productivity losses we incur from consuming and wasting so much food. Public health campaigns worldwide now promote the message that excess weight and lack of physical activity is linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, strokes and some types of cancer.

Would cutting overeating and waste really change the contours of the "Fat Map"?

Not by itself. The UN estimates we need to invest $30 billion more in agriculture every year. But each of us can consume more wisely and donate food we now waste to a food bank or charity. If it makes sense to save energy, why throw away billions of dollars worth of food and overeat until it endangers our health and our future?

The author is a princess of Jordan and UN Messenger of Peace. She set up the first food relief NGO in Jordan, the first in the Arab world, and served as a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Food Programme from 2005 to 2007.

(China Daily 11/17/2009 page9)