Waste not 

▪️ Waste not ▪️ Silent killer ▪️ Punishing China

It’s not just food down the drain, but money, too. The 2024 UN Food Waste Index report   ̶   which measured food waste at the consumer and retail level across more than 100 countries   ̶   found that over a trillion dollars worth of food gets thrown out every year, from households to grocery stores to farms, all across the globe.

Malta is no exception.  In fact, out of 17 countries for which I found statistics, it has the second-worst record for food waste, at 129 kgs per capita.  That’s four times as much as Slovenia’s.  And that doesn’t include waste disposed of by food outlets and stores.

Such waste has a significant negative impact on the environment. The food process itself   ̶   raising the animals, the land and water used, and the subsequent pollution that goes with it   ̶   is extremely intensive.  Food waste makes the process worse: it rots in landfills and creates methane, being responsible for an estimated 8 to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. To put that into perspective, global food waste is the third largest source of emissions, behind only the United States and China.

But what makes the problem worse is that in 2022 more than 780 million people went hungry around the world, even as hundreds of billions of meals were wasted that same year.  It is ironic that, while the world has become very efficient at producing more than enough to go around for everyone, nearly 30% of people on the planet suffer from moderate or severe food insecurity,  that is lack regular access to safe and nutritious food.

Households contributed to 60% of all food waste generated globally in 2022, compared to nearly 28% for food service and a little under 13% for retailers. As an EU member, Malta is committed to meeting the Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 target to halve per capita food waste at the retail and consumer level by 2030 and reduce food losses along the food production and supply chains.

The government needs to be more forceful on this.  It appears that we are relying on the Waste Framework Directive to achieve the EU target, but I doubt that this is enough to reduce food waste.  There needs to be more specific measures targeted at each stage of the food supply chain, including monitoring food waste levels and reporting back regarding progress made.

I see little being done in the way of food waste prevention programmes.  We also need to encourage food donation and other redistribution for human consumption, prioritise human use over animal feed, and incentivise reprocessing into non-food products.  All such initiatives would be integral to a holistic plan to prevent waste generation and provide incentives for the application of the waste hierarchy.

Silent killer

Life expectancy in Malta is now the fifth highest in the EU and has risen since 2000, driven by a decline in premature deaths from the two leading causes – cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

Contrary to what one would conclude from ill-informed discussions, from 2011 to 2021 the age-standardised mortality rate per 100,000 persons from all cancers fell by around 16% to 195.  Cancer currently accounts for approximately 25% of deaths   ̶   second only to heart disease.  Among deaths due to cancer, lung cancer was the main cause of mortality, accounting for 4.2 % of all deaths in 2020.  

According to estimates from the Joint Research Centre of the European Observatory based on incidence trends from previous years, the incidence of cancer in Malta is around 2,500 new cases per annum on average. More men are being diagnosed with cancer than women, but the incidence rate for men is lower than the EU average. The leading cancer among men is prostate, followed by lung and colorectal cancer, while among women it is breast cancer, followed by colorectal and uterine cancer.

Cancer most commonly develops in older adults. In the past few decades, however, younger adults have faced more frequent, and often more aggressive, diagnoses of colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and other cancer types typically not seen until later in life. Those diagnoses may upend their lives during some of the most formative and pivotal years.

It’s a really busy time of life to be faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis.  Many are trying to start families or are not done expanding their families, so fertility considerations and sexual health are really major concerns. And many have financial difficulties and a lot of psychosocial distress when faced with this type of diagnosis at a young stage of life.

Photo: Thirdman

This makes one wonder why cancer cases are rising among young people. Researchers largely agree that shifts in lifestyle are key drivers of cancer risk. Eating ultra-processed foods and lots of red meat, drinking sugar-sweetened beverages, not getting enough exercise, and sleeping poorly all appear to make people more susceptible to cancer.

The early-onset cancer trends appear to be especially strongly linked to rising rates of obesity. A study published in Lancet Public Health in 2019 showed that half of obesity-related cancers have become more common in young adults, compared to one in nine non-obesity-related cancers.

Young people tend to be diagnosed at later stages than most older people, which makes their likelihood of survival lower.  It’s also possible, according to some researchers, that something biological differentiates tumours in some young people, making them more aggressive and likely to lead to death. For instance, many young people in other countries who develop lung cancer are not smokers.  Understanding the genetic basis for lung cancer and the role of certain environmental exposures could help scientists offer targeted screening to young people.

Healthy people younger than 50 are typically not eligible for cancer screenings in Malta.  Doctors may find early signs of cancer in young people when giving a medical scan or test for an unrelated symptom or condition, and sometimes a routine blood test identifies signs of thyroid or kidney cancer.  It would appear that earlier or more frequent screening may lead to earlier detection or prevention.

Our National Cancer Plan has had good results, but it needs to be beefed up in the light of findings from other countries relating to trends among different sections and ages of the population, including the risk of recurrence of cancer in young adults. The good work being done by the Emanuele Cancer Research Foundation and the Alive Charity Foundation is to be commended.  The Cancer Research and Innovation set up by the Government last month is an important step forward since it will focus on improving cancer research and treatment in Malta by bringing together the premier researchers in one hub.  

Punishing China

The oversupply of Chinese goods in key industries is stoking tensions between the world’s biggest manufacturer and its major trading partners, including the United States and the European Union.  Its global trade surplus in goods has soared and is now approaching $1 trillionThe Biden administration has now imposed tariffs as high as 100% on Chinese exports of electric vehicles and taxes on other imported goods, including semiconductors and batteries.

Ironically, the surge in Chinese exports largely reflects China’s weakness rather than its strength. There is no doubt that the Chinese economy is in trouble.  Consumer spending is far too low as a share of national income, while high levels of investment spending have become unsustainable.  Moreover, a declining working-age population and slowing technological progress have made matters worse.  For a while, these problems were masked by a huge housing bubble and a bloated real estate sector, but that game appears to be up.

Xi Jinping, China’s leader, appears unwilling to do the obvious, that is to transfer more income to households, strengthening consumer demand. He is still focused on production rather than consumption and so China is running giant trade surpluses, dumping the stuff China produces but can’t or won’t consume in other countries’ markets.

The immediate impact of the US tariffs will not be significant, because China currently exports few of the affected goods to the USA.  But Biden’s moves are not just a symbolic gesture. They’re a warning that the United States won’t accept a second so-called China shock. The EU is said to be considering its own counter-measures to counter a big surge in imports from China.

Most economists are not normally worried by imports. After all, there’s an old line in economics that if another country wants to sell you a lot of useful stuff at low prices, you shouldn’t protest   ̶   if anything, you should send them a note of thanks.  This is particularly the case when inflation is above the norm and anything that reduces its impact would be welcome.

Obviously, it isn’t that simple. Cheap imports may make a nation as a whole richer, but they can also hurt significant numbers of workers.  In the seventies Mintoff was worried that the development of manufacturing in Malta would be stunted by imports from low-wage countries.  He set up a protective wall through tariffs and other non-tariff barriers.  It worked for some time, but he didn’t realise that this is but a temporary solution that can become self-defeating in the longer term, as it did.

It has also been clear for a long time that trade deficits can be damaging if the economy is persistently depressed, with insufficient demand to produce full employment.  That has been the case in the EU for some years now, though not in Malta.

The Chinese goods being targeted by the new or increased tariffs are mainly associated with the transition to green energy.  Most of the attention has been on electric vehicles, but giant batteries   ̶   which are now starting to play a crucial role in solving the problem of renewable energy intermittence (the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow)   ̶   are an even bigger deal.

In strict economic terms, it would make sense to buy cheap Chinese batteries.  However, political economy says otherwise.  We have a situation where climate change increasingly poses an existential threat; yet, the green energy transition is too fragile.  One only has to note the fast backtracking being made by the European Commission under pressure from the right-wing. 

Both the US and EU are giving incentives and subsidies to green projects.  But if those subsidies create manufacturing jobs in China rather than in the US and EU themselves, this consideration easily outweighs all the usual arguments against tariffs, especially in an election year.  More trade wars are therefore to be expected.

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