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Mottainai! What a Waste! Japan staves off the worst of ‘food waste culture’

11 Sep 2017
A respect for natural resources, the environment and the food it yields lay at the heart of traditional Japanese culture. Across most areas of the country, in a sharp contrast to ‘bon appétit’, most people quietly say ‘tadakimasu’. Loosely translated it means ‘I receive’ and reflects one's reverence for having food to eat.  
 
Though the country still grapples with the high food waste usually accompanied by a growth in household incomes –  Japan consumes 6.2 million tonnes of food on average each year –  across the country, there is widespread understanding of the problem presented by food waste and its moral and economic imperatives. That consciousness is enshrined in the concept of 'mottainai' which translates to ‘what a waste!’ An expression of the displeasure of having food and other resources thrown out, ‘mottainai’ has been used by institutions, including schools, to stress the need to curb food waste.  
 
In Asia and the Pacific, the Food and Agriculture Organization has a strategic programme to reduce food loss and waste. In the last five years, a Save Food advocacy campaign has been well received in Japan, with numerous lectures and training sessions undertaken to sensitise Japanese youth – from elementary school to university – the general public and the private sector on food waste reduction. A number of these programmes have been implemented in partnership with local and national government administrations.  
 
“Japanese people are very aware of the importance of reducing the food they waste. In some respect it makes our work a little more easily appreciated,” said Charles Boliko, head of FAO’s Liaison Office in Japan. “While people do try to reduce the food they throw out, there is still some degree of overbuying and people can end up wasting a lot at restaurants,” Boliko added.  
 
Food labels also present a significant challenge to food loss reductions in the country. Many foods have a date by which the original ‘taste’ is guaranteed or shômi kigen. In the English-speaking world, this is often translated as ‘best by’.  While the date doesn’t indicate that the food should be discarded, nor does it imply any health issue if consumed later, Boliko says many people are likely to throw away their food if they see that the shômi kigen date has passed. “In the case of yoghurt, it can typically stay edible up to two weeks after the shômi kigen date, as long as it remains in the refrigerator. The taste may change, but your health is not at risk,” Boliko shared.  
 
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF), the weight of food loss per person per day in Japan is about that of an average bowl of rice. The Government estimates that businesses waste approximately 3.4 million tonnes of edible food each year, and households follow closely behind with 2.8 million tonnes.  
 
The figure is high but relatively conservative compared to some other developed countries. To provide context, Italy has a population less than half of Japan –  60 million people –  yet wastes an astounding 5.1 million tonnes. Japan, by comparison, has a population size of around 127 million but does not consume considerably more. In a starker example, Germany surpasses both countries with close to 11 million tonnes of food estimated to be wasted each year – despite having around 44 million people less than Japan and only 22 million more people than Italy. This fact underscores that even among industrialised countries with comparable levels of development, social factors such as food culture – in addition to how food industries are structured–  can profoundly affect how food waste manifests. 
 
Keiko Okabe, a communications specialist with FAO in Japan, believes that much of the Japanese respect for food comes from the country's post-war past. “A lot of older people faced high food insecurity after the second world war, and they have passed on their reverence for food to the next generation,” she said. It certainly helps that Japan has one of the highest life expectancies in the world – at 83.7 years, the country is second to Hong Kong (an autonomous territory in China) which achieved a life expectancy rate of 84 years recently.  
 
Local municipalities in Japan are actively engaged in changing the narrative around food waste and encouraging sustainable reductions. As a consequence of additional spending for the collection and treatment of perishable garbage, local solid waste management budgets are strained by unnecessary food waste. Communication campaigns have been launched by local governments to combat waste and reduce the negative economic costs of their disposal. 
 
FAO’s campaign in Japan is also helping to change habits, especially among youth. Shimoda Sou, a student at Kaiseigakuin High School (Shinjuku, Tokyo) recently attended a lecture organised by the FAO-Japan. “After the lecture, I feel a lot more aware of how food waste negatively contributes to the environment, specifically climate change. I am making a greater effort to reduce my own food waste footprint,” said Sou.  
 
 “I am a lot more active in getting people to become more aware of food waste – inside and outside of school,” said Eisaku Ichikawa, a teacher who covers Education for Sustainable Development at Kaiseigakuin High School. Ichikawa said that the lecture also had a significant impact on her work and home life. “I brought the lessons home and told my young daughter about Mr Boliko’s lecture and FAO’s work. It has had a profound effect on her, my daughter is now saying that she is trying to eat without leaving leftovers because she doesn’t want to make Boliko-san sad,” said Ichikawa with a laugh.  
 
FAO works in close collaboration with the Food Industry Affairs Bureau of the MAFF and other public and private sector companies. On October 1, the Organization will jointly host a symposium on food waste with the 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) Promotion Division of the Resources and Waste Recycling Bureau of Yokohama City, Japan’s second largest city after Tokyo, its capital.  
 
In 2011, a Save Food study on global food losses and waste, conducted in partnership with the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, indicated that a third of the food consumed globally, or 1.3 billion tonnes are lost or wasted each year. Close to half of that figure was attributed to poor consumption habits at the household level and failures in the retail sector, mostly in the case of higher income countries. A significant portion of that lost or wasted food ends up in landfills or incinerated, leading to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions which contribute to global warming and climate change. Food waste, it is estimated, contributes to roughly 4.4 gigatonnes of GHG emissions annually. FAO’s analysis shows that if food loss and waste were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest emitter of GHGs – surpassed only by the United States and China. 

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