The Food Wasting Pandemic

In a world where around  870 million people suffer from chronic malnourishment — and tens of millions more come very close — wasting food would be a significant moral calamity. Unfortunately, as the Washington Post’s Brad Plummer reported on his WonkBlog, it’s also a disturbingly common and large scale problem, one that is hardly limited to privileged first-worlders living in abundance (although that’s a big part of it).

Between 30 and 50 percent of all the food that’s produced on the planet is lost and wasted without ever reaching human stomachs. That’s the stunning takeaway from a new report (pdf) from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

We’ve covered food waste before on this blog, but those figures seemed staggering to the point of absurdity. So I thought I’d comb through the report and pull out some of the concrete details that help illustrate just how the world can actually waste this much food. A sampling:

  • “A [survey] in India showed that at least 40% of all its fruit and vegetables is lost between grower and consumer due to lack of refrigerated transport, poor roads, inclement weather and corruption.”
  • “In mature, developed economies such as the UK and USA … entire crops, or portions of crops, can be rejected prior to harvest on the grounds of physical appearance. As a result of these factors, up to 30% of the UK vegetable crop is never harvested.”
  • “Grain wastage in store varies widely with the type of crop and the region. In a developed country such as Australia, wastage of 0.75% in stored grain is at the upper end of acceptability … [In] Pakistan, losses amount to about 16% of production, or 3.2 million tonnes annually, where inadequate storage infrastructure leads to widespread rodent infestation problems.”
  • “Many of the grain stores in the former Soviet Republics were engineered and constructed in the 1930s, and cold-storage warehouses and food processing facilities date back to the 1950s. As a result they are inefficient by modern engineering standards, and frequently both insanitary and unsafe.”
  • “[M]any less-developed nations are located in the warmer, hotter regions of the world, such as India and Africa where post harvest losses of fruit and vegetables can range between 35–50% annually, and these countries lack the engineered infrastructure required to facilitate such post-harvest cooling.”

Note that the U.S. alone wastes $165 billion in food each year, which amounts to perhaps 40 percent of our domestic supply — a staggering number in a country with a fairly high percentage of impoverished and food-insecure people. Not only is wasting food on this scale a tragedy in its own right, but it also puts pressure on our already-strained resources, namely water, land, and energy.

Thankfully, like most such social issues, there are reasonable and plausible solutions — albeit ones requiring a tremendous amount of financial and political investment.

For poorer countries, simply building better food-storage buildings could cut down massively on waste in places like Pakistan or Ghana (which lost 50 percent of its stored maize in 2008). Better harvesting technology and techniques could also help, although the report suggests that some nations like India will need more sweeping societal and political changes to cut down on waste.

Meanwhile, wealthier regions like the United States and Europe will need to think harder about not throwing out so much perfectly good food — see this old post for more on that. One small step, which Britain has been exploring of late, is to rethink their use of food labels, which often encourage supermarkets to toss out food long before it actually goes bad.

Furthermore, time is of the essence, as other global problems are exacerbating the issue:

That may not seem like a pressing task right this second, but these issues are likely to get more attention in the years ahead. Scientists say it’s going to be a challenge feeding the world as the population soars past 7 billion and climate change deals a blow to crop yields in the decades ahead. Apart from advanced farming techniques and better land management, we’ll also need to figure out how to tamp down on food waste.

Again, this would require a significant amount of political and economic capital, from both the private and public sectors. The public needs to become more aware of this issue and put pressure on politicians and companies alike to take action. It will require a significant multidimensional approach, which is no easy task given all the other complex national and global problems occupying most societies. Of course, the consequences of inaction will be far more difficult to deal with.

To learn more about the big picture regarding this topic, read this PDF essay  by the University of Minnesota’s Jonathan Foley.



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