When I was a child my mother always used the expression “Food is no to be thrown away” (¡La comida no se bota!) in order to compel me to eat due to my problematic eating habits at that time; this obviously accompanied by some verbal allusions (and images if necessary) of the Ethiopian famine of early eighties (1984-1985). I was not alone, it was the case for the majority of Colombian children of my generation. I bring this up because last year, after the Colombian National Planning Department presented a report about the food waste situation in Colombia, the president J.M. Santos launched a governmental initiative to reduce to zero the food waste (“Desperdicio Cero”) using that traditional motherly expression, which became the campaign’s slogan. The report revealed in premiere the current figures about food loss and waste in Colombia, arousing some discussions around this polemic problem. Let’s see what the figures said and produced.
What does the report say? The Colombian food loss and waste situation
With the report “Loss and waste of food in Colombia. 2016” for the first time the Colombian government published an official study on this issue at a national level. It shows figures and data of food loss and waste by country’s farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. The aim of this report was obtaining a national aggregated calculation of this situation, to define a work agenda and a public policy strategy to reduce it. This was not only a pioneering report, but it also started a debate on a national matter barely discussed by Colombian food actors.
The report shown that in Colombia 9.76 million tons of food are lost and wasted each year. Taking into account that accordingly to the Food and Agriculture Organization –FAO- Colombia has an available food offer for human consumption of 28 million tons per year (FAO 2014), that figure represents 34% of the total food that the country could consume during a year. Then, in Colombia for every three tons of available food, one finish at the garbage bin. Alarming, expensive and an ethically questionable situation, especially if we consider that Colombia still has a debt in the hunger fight: 42.7% of Colombian population lives in food insecurity and 13,2% of children under 5 years suffer of chronic undernourishment, 59 children died on 2016 because of this.
Food waste: tabu or not tabu. An ethical question
Nevertheless, Colombian figures are not very far from the global average. According to FAO, in the world one third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. Industrialized and developing countries misuse roughly the same quantities of food (670 and 630 million tonnes respectively). However, while in developing countries around 40% of food is lost after harvest and during food processing, in industrialized countries more than 40% is wasted in distribution and consumption.
Thus, it is interesting to see the losses and wastes in Colombia in order to know more about the food actors behaviour. From the total loss and waste food, 63.8% corresponds to losses and 36,2% are wastes. This difference between losses and wastes could have an explanation from a sociological or cultural point of view. For the majority of people living in poverty or with limited incomes in developing countries, wasting food is a social reprehensible act. However, if we observe in detail the figures about waste, in Colombia 15.6% of the food is thrown away after going through the plate or in the best (worst) case without being used. This is almost five times what is lost on the process and packaging stage. Hence, we can assume that something is happening on Colombia consumers behave. Maybe mums traditional expression for avoiding food waste and make children eat is no longer in use.
But, what is being done? Proposals for a starting national debate
Beyond of underlining the scale of the loss and waste food in Colombia, the report arouse an interesting debate in Colombia, leading national food actors to take new action paths. From the institutional side, the government launched the campaign zero waste, which seeks to reduce the losses through improvements in the post-harvest handling, packaging and transportation stage, implementing good agricultural practices, and the creation of inter-institutional alliances and special lines of credit for each chain’s components.
A draft bill proposal to castigate food waste was also launched last year. It aims to establish a model of sustainable development in the reduction of food losses and waste, forbidding the destruction of suitable food for human consumption, through sanctioning companies that incur in food waste but proposing tax incentives for food donations; and generating educational campaigns, particularly focus to children, to raise awareness about the seriousness of this problem. Nevertheless, this bill proposal has not been approved and implemented yet (after more than one year of its presentation in the parliament). It seems that some organizations/actor still have reluctances to the project, which lets think that the food loss and waste fight could, incredibly, have opponents.
From the private side, and following the path of educating society, one of the most interesting initiatives born last year was the campaign of the biggest Colombian sodas company who, associated with several fast food chains in all country, launched a program to encourage clients to share the food they do not eat, but is perfectly right, to homeless people; this through innovative resources. Beyond to see this campaign as a leftovers donation (its main critic), the interesting point is the aim to create awareness of food waste and invite people to change the habit of wasting for the habit of sharing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdu6m3QBT4A).
Other civil proposals are independent initiatives replicating some international campaigns as for example the “Disco soups”. It consists of collecting food that people and supermarkets discard for their appearance and then cooking them at the rhythm of music in public free events, making citizens aware of the excessive waste of food. Thus, the food waste is a real problem, which involves ethical, monetary and societal questions but in which we can all contribute our bit and confirm that food is not to be thrown away, as mums say.
For those not knowing that global-historic episode could visit: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/703958.stm
The National Department of Planning (DNP as per its acronym in Spanish) is “a technical entity that promotes the implementation of a strategic vision of the country in the social, economic and environmental fields; through the design, orientation and evaluation of Colombian public policies, the management and allocation of public investment and the concretion of this in governmental development plans, programs and projects” (http://www.dnp.gov.co/).
 Data from Colombian National Association of Food Banks -ABACO- (http://www.abaco.org.co/el-hambre) and National Institute for Health –INS- (http://www.ins.gov.co)
As per FAO definitions, food loss is a decrease in the quantity of available food for human consumption in the phases of agricultural production, post-harvest, storage, and industrial processing; generally due to inefficiencies in the production chains. Food waste is a decrease of food in the distribution, retail and consumption stages. It is related to food handling and commercial practices, as well as behaviour, purchasing and consumption habits, (FAO, 2011). http://www.fao.org/docrep/014/mb060e/mb060e00.pdf
 It is important to highlight that the actors and initiatives to reduce food waste are not new in Colombia. There are some institutions and private/industrial partnerships which have been working on this subject since several years ago. One the principal works has been done by the food banks and its national network association -Abaco- (www.abaco.org.co)