Waste Not, Want Not

April 01, 2013

A consortium of donors, NGOs, supermarkets and agro-businesses are working on plans to use surplus food, currently wasted in industrialised countries, to the developing world to tackle hunger.

According to some estimates, 1.2 billion tonnes of all food produced is never eaten – because of losses in harvesting, storage, transportation and poor labelling.  This is between 30-50% of all food produced: yet at the same time, about 900 million people will go to bed tonight hungry.

In a new public-private partnership, donor agencies and supermarkets are planning to work together to develop ways to ship this surplus to Africa. Food that is approaching its use-by date will be bought by donor governments at cost and repurposed to tackle hunger in countries that need it most. Officials are working with the merchant navy to develop a European equivalent of the US Cargo Preference Act so that the food is carried in nationally-registered vessels.

The UK Government Big Society unit is developing plans to put specially-marked donation centres on street corners, so that families with surplus food can donate it directly. UKAid will then be used to transport the food to countries with the highest rates of hunger.

Under the current definition of Official Development Assistance (ODA), the market value of the food which is purchased by government and the cost of shipping it will count towards the international definition of aid. This means that the scheme will contribute to the UK Government’s target of 0.7%, which Britain is meeting for the first time in 2013. The Treasury is thought to be enthusiastic about the scheme because it helps the UK to meet the target without additional public spending.  The scheme is regarded in government as a way to leverage Britain’s growing aid budget to support British farmers and firms while providing additional food for the world’s poor.

Ministers see the new scheme as a win-win. According to one Development Minister:

“I remember my mother telling me to eat all my dinner because people were starving in Africa. It always seemed to me we should ship them the food instead. Well thanks an innovative new partnership, we will be able to do that. This shows we can do well while doing good. We will create jobs for British farmers, food companies and for our hard-pressed merchant navy, while showing the world that we are serious about fighting hunger.  Furthermore, this is an opportunity to spread the word globally about the quality of British cuisine.”

NGOs, who are focusing on reducing hunger in 2013, have given a cautious welcome to the scheme:

“Hunger is the world's most shocking problem and our toughest challenge. One in eight people on this planet lives with the pain of hunger. And yet our planet provides enough food for everyone. It's unfair, it's unjust, and - it's totally preventable. We can reduce hunger without putting any additional pressure on the planet’s resources IF we ship unwanted food to people in poor countries.” 

Even so, at the Center for Global Development we have significant reservations about the idea. The reason people are hungry is because they are poor, not because there is not enough food.  Though this became widely accepted in the 1980s, in recent years some campaigners and governments seem to find it easier to portray hunger as a problem of food production rather than poverty.

The programme will be piloted in Africa. The first Africa Pilot for Repurposing International Leftovers (APRIL 1) is expected to commence this month.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.