Food waste ‘could have funded a fifth of Israel’s COVID-19 aid budget’ – expert

Israel continues to dump a third of food it produces, says report by Leket Israel and Environment Ministry; waste contributes 6% of country’s global warming gases

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Illustrative photo of a banquet buffet. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz, istockphoto, Getty Images)
Illustrative photo of a banquet buffet. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz, istockphoto, Getty Images)

Israel wasted a third of all the food it produced last year — just under half of which was perfectly edible and could have been donated to the 465,000 households that do not have enough money to eat properly, according to a report published jointly on Tuesday by the food rescue organization Leket Israel and the Environmental Protection Ministry.

The 70,000 tons of fuel used to produce, transport, and distribute food that was never eaten could have powered 160,000 cars for a year, while the 180 million cubic meters of fresh water that was used to grow that food could have provided a shower for every Israeli every day for a year. Add to that another 190 million cubic meters of recycled water, also wasted.

A quarter-million acres of land (1,000 square kilometers), equivalent to 20 times the area of Tel Aviv, was used to grow food that was never eaten, the report calculates.

Chen Herzog, chief economist at BDO, a consulting firm that wrote the report, said, “Food waste has cost Israel’s economy NIS 20.3 billion ($6 billion) in 2019, on top of an environmental cost of NIS 3.2 billion ($938 million). This money could have financed one-fifth of the state’s COVID-19 aid budget.”

A bulldozer lifts waste at the Greenet recycling plant in the Atarot industrial zone, north of Jerusalem, June 16, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The financial and environmental costs of food loss along the entire value chain end up being paid directly out of the pockets of Israeli consumers and taxpayers, and negatively affect the cost of living. Specifically, this year, considering the COVID-19 pandemic, it is of paramount importance to formulate a national plan for food rescue.”

This year’s fifth report by Leket Israel — which rescues nutritious surplus food and distributes it to needy people via some 200 other nonprofits — is the first to be jointly published with the Environmental Protection Ministry as part of the ministry’s review of state policy on waste in general and food waste in particular.

It is also the first to translate food waste into a cost to the environment of NIS 3.2 billion ($950 million).

Of this, NIS 1.4 billion ($415 million) relates to wasted natural resources such as water and soil. From production to landfill, unconsumed food is responsible for six percent of the country’s global warming gases.

The Dudaim dump site, the biggest landfill in Israel, near the city of Rahat in southern Israel, on August 10, 2016. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

The total quantity of wasted food — a whopping 2.5 million tons, valued at around NIS 20.3 ($6) billion — is similar to figures released by Leket for 2018 and to waste in other developed countries. It translates into roughly NIS 670 ($200) per month of the average household’s monthly bill. Fruit, vegetables and grain-based items such as bread and baked goods — which have relatively short shelf lives — account for half of what is thrown away.

The costs continue after those leftovers have been consigned to the trash. Dumped food makes up a third of all urban waste. It goes on to be collected, transported, sorted, treated, and thrown into landfill, for which a levy is charged.

Once it reaches landfill, as most of Israel’s waste does, it decomposes, generating global warming methane gas.

The report found that a fifth of Israel’s food is consumed across a range of institutions from factories, restaurants, hotels and event halls to schools, hospitals, prisons, the army and the police. Here, too, a third of the food goes into the trash, rising to 43% for facilities that host events.

Leket volunteers prepare food trays for distribution to not-for-profit and government organizations that deliver meals to the needy. (Courtesy, Leket Israel)

Other Western nations are more advanced when it comes to passing food waste-related legislation and issuing national plans and multiyear targets for waste reduction, the report said.

Among its recommendations are setting a national target to cut food waste by 50% by 2030, in line with one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, developing a national plan to cut waste along the entire food chain, examining incentives for food saving and charges for food waste in the commercial sector, and reviewing sell-by dates.

The report is based on data from 2019. BDO estimates that the economic effects of COVID-19 this year have added another 145,000 people to the 1.87 million Israelis who cannot afford sufficient nutritious food.

Last year, Leket Israel rescued the equivalent of 2.2 million meals from army bases, hotels, event halls, catering firms, restaurants and others, and around 15,700 tons of agricultural produce. Valued at NIS 209 million($62 million), this provided weekly meals to some 175,000 needy people.

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