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Food waste in the land of ‘Man vs Food’

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Here is some more food for thought about the modern global food economy. A study recently published by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that about one-third of all food produced on the planet is wasted, to the tune of 1.3 billion tons per year. Put another way, planet Earth throws away over 300 million Hummer H2′s worth of food every year.

What is more interesting is how the food is wasted around the world:

Food losses in industrialized countries are as high as in developing countries, but in developing countries more than 40% of the food losses occur at post harvest and processing levels, while in industrialized countries, more than 40% of the food losses occur at retail and consumer levels. Food waste at consumer level in industrialized countries (222 million ton) is almost as high as the total net food production in sub- Saharan Africa (230 million ton).

I nearly dropped my sandwich reading that. But is it really a surprise to many of us?

Take a trip to the grocery store and one will find aisles upon aisles of fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, and other processed foodstuffs. Food that isn’t taken home is tossed for a number of reasons; it can be past its expiration date, has accumulated moisture, or sometimes just doesn’t look “good” anymore, and is sent to that big landfill in the sky. All told, around 27 million tons of food per year is tossed from grocery stores, restaurants, fast food chains and convenience stores.

The story continues at home. Estimates place household food waste at 24.5 million tons per year (that’s almost 6 million Hummer H2s, if you’re keeping count at home). Don’t worry, I’m as guilty as the next guy. The depths of my refrigerator are riddled with foodstuffs bought on impulse during supermarket trips on empty stomachs, when everything looks tasty, only to be thrown out in a fit of housecleaning.

All told, anywhere between one-quarter to one-half of all edible food in the United States is given the ole toss-a-roo.

So how did we go from a world on the brink of famine to one in which a TV host competes each week to devour as much food as humanly (im)possible? In short, science and economics revolutionized food production. Taking corn as an example, crop yields more than quadrupled in under a century.

A look back a couple of centuries provides useful clues about waste in the modern food economy. The industrialization of food transformed how grain and meat were cultivated, and ultimately consumed. The confluence of globalization, mechanization, and scientific understanding of how to grow and raise animals more effectively led to significant gains in food production over the last century and a half.

Globalization meant that food could be grown in one corner of the planet with abundant land and resources (the United States), and sent to another corner of the planet desperately in need of calories (Europe). All of this was made possible by new networks of railways and shipping lines enabled by free trade agreements. Mechanization allowed for improved manipulation of farmland and harvesting capabilities, and the introduction of nitrogen-based fertilizers allowed crops to be grown more intensely, taking crop yields beyond the nutrient limits of the soil.

Aiding this food revolution was an expansive set of government policies. The Department of Agriculture was created to ensure the production of affordable food; public support for agriculture in the form of subsidies and other guarantees (most recently, ethanol import tariff) insulated farmers from the uncertainties of global markets and nature; and land reclamation projects to convert arid deserts to farmland through irrigation and damming of rivers – just to name a few.

These policies, by and large, remain in effect today, perpetuating a legacy outlook on the challenges that face the agricultural economy rather than addressing and preparing for the modern challenge of feeding nearly seven billion people sustainably. Over one hundred year’s worth of doubling down on energy-, antibiotic- and fertilizer-intensive food production practices have produced the all too familiar side effects of intensive food production.

By making food more abundant and affordable (generally a Good Thing), waste was introduced into the later stages of the supply chain (that’s where you and I come in). Thus, it would seem that our research efforts and public programs would be better utilized making use of the noms we already produce, or better yet, figuring out how to make do with less. If most food is wasted, or lost (to use the industry parlance), then perhaps our efforts at better spent at the supermarket aisle and dining table, rather than at the farm.

The outlook is somewhat encouraging. As part of the proposed 2012 budget, farm subsidies and ethanol support are on the chopping block, something that was thought too entrenched, too untouchable even a year ago. The rise of farmers markets and CSAs across the nation might be a sign that, not only are food eaters concerned about where their food comes from, but that consumers are interested in purchasing food in a size other than “pallet”.

So it seems, here in the land of Man vs Food, that food is undervalued and a change to our consumption behavior is needed. Sound familiar?

Photo credit.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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