A Mongolian nomad milking a cow
c John Pannell

Mongolia: UNEP’s answer to food wastage

Mongolia is one of the fastest growing countries in the world and has now been put under the spotlight by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). One of the biggest contradictions of our times, the shortage and wastage of food, will be targeted through a strategic programme that learns from Mongolia’s example. Crucially, Mongolia is one of the very few nations that do not waste food at any significant level.

So, why do other countries need to learn from Mongolia? Every year, it is estimated that over one third of the food produced worldwide, totalling 1.3 billion tonnes, is thrown into the bins of consumers and retailers. Put into dietary language, the world’s largest regions are wasting between 400,000 (south and southeast Asia) and 750,000 (Europe) calories per person, each day.

This has huge moral implications in a world where almost 900 million people are starving. It is also worth considering the ethical, environmental and economic inputs that go into the production of food. Having food to discard signifies a waste of resources used in production and also unnecessary carbon emissions.

As the food supply chain is becoming increasingly globalized, the behaviour of consumers in one country has huge impacts on those in another. Many foods are now produced in one country and demanded elsewhere. The West’s demand for food resources from developing countries causes the price of these goods to rise; this results in local consumers being priced out of the market for local produce. The wasteful habits of developed countries creates even more demand than is necessary, further reducing the possible supply and affordability of food in developing countries.

This new campaign to target food wastage was launched in Mongolia by UNEP, in cooperation with partners from the private and public sector, on June 5th this year. With the slogan ‘Reduce Your Foodprint’, it is hoped that this campaign will draw attention to the high volume of perfectly edible food that never reaches our plates.

In industrialised societies, the excess production of food is a main cause of wastage. Farmers for developed countries often make production plans to cover themselves for bad weather conditions, in order to consistently deliver the contracted amounts to retailers. Due to the unpredictable nature of weather and farmers aiming for ‘too much’ produce rather than ‘too little’, this often causes a surplus of foods that goes to waste.

It has also been shown that another main cause of food wastage relates to consumer behaviour. Food is wasted due to the stringent aesthetic expectation of consumers and retailers, who put a premium on the appearance of food. For example, Western retailers often reject perfectly edible food if it is an unusual shape.

Addressing the problem of consumer behaviour is fundamental to solving food wastage, according to ‘Global Food Losses and Food Waste’, a 2011 paper from the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology. In the paper, it is argued that, in developed societies: “solutions at producer and industrial level would only be marginal if consumers continue to waste at current levels. Consumer households need to be informed and change the behaviour which causes the current high levels of food waste.”

In contrast to these problems with how Western consumers view food, is the attitude in Mongolia, an attitude commended by UNEP.

“One of the ways everyone can contribute to these twin challenges [of food wastage and shortage] is by looking at how less-wasteful cultures place such value on every morsel of food and considering how to emulate them,” said UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner.

Looking at Mongolia, and the nomadic lifestyle of many of its people, UNEP hope to highlight practices that can offer solutions to the modern-day challenge of food waste. For example, Mongolians utilize a traditional food called borts. This is air-dried concentrated beef, condensed to the size of a small ball; it is then shaved into hot water to produce a soup with the equivalent protein of several steaks.

Cooking methods like this access the required nutrients from meat in a far more efficient (and a far less expensive) manner. Mongolians also still rely on ancient techniques to enable certain food to last for years, without refrigeration. Even without technological advancement, their food has a long shelf life. Similarly, nomads in Mongolia discard food only when it shows signs of spoiling, whilst in contrast, the use of sell-by dates in many Western countries encourages the discarding of food in an arbitrary manner.

UNEP have highlighted the embedded value placed upon food by the Mongolian nomads, in contrast to the throw away culture of many Western societies. It has been estimated that over 226,000 households in Mongolia produce their own livestock. Value of food is therefore derived from the process of rearing and eating their own produce. The result of this proximity to food production is that the nomads would be less inclined to waste food, as through this way of life, the value of livestock is comparative to the labour put into its rearing.

So how can more developed countries, far more detached from the production of food than Mongolians, stop wasting so much? The current importance of food’s appearance in Western markets needs to be addressed to avoid wastage for superficial reasons. Similarly, governments will need to rationalise guidelines on sell-by dates and businesses will need to revise the current criteria for rejecting produce.

These measures address the waste of food, but there still remains the problem that, in some places, the supply of food far exceeds demand. Solving this will involve better communications between retailers and producers. However, it may be that supermarkets and other food retailers need to re-evaluate how much food they stock. Perhaps, in part, it is the sheer choice offered to Western consumers by food retailers that causes excess produce.

It will be interesting to see how UNEP can make lessons from Mongolia transferable to such different cultural contexts. A comparison of Mongolia with more Western countries reveals that in order to waste less food, significant changes are needed in how food production is managed. By hosting the programme in Mongolia and highlighting the value placed upon food there, UNEP can expose some problems of more industrialised societies’ attitude towards food. It is ideally hoped that this campaign will raise a new awareness, in Western consumers, about the supply of food. If this is successful, this could alter the habits of consumers, potentially leading to direct changes in demand for food.

Stephen Berriman

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Stephen Berriman is a student in Anthropology at the University of Sussex. He is particularly interested in European politics, global ethics and the study of ‘indigenous’ societies.

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