Feed 9 Billion People, Cut Out the Food Waste
Improving Food System Efficiency Shouldn’t be Hard
I’ve been hearing this “9 billion” figure a lot lately. Nine billion people on the planet by 2050. It’s a big number, and most of the extensive coverage in papers, magazines, and blogs jump straight to the issue of food: how are we going to feed all 9 billion?
Photo by Gabriel Amadeus
Most articles jump straight to scientific and political solutions. The Economist touted the latest agronomic practices: matching the “best plants, fertilisers, fungicides, and husbandry” to get higher crop yields. American Public Media’s new project, Food for 9 Billion, discusses subsidized birth control in poor areas, soothing the political tensions that lead to famine in Africa, and, again, agriculture science. Even our good friends over at Monsanto have a page devoted to the topic of 9 billion mouths to feed, emphasizing — can you guess? — advanced breeding and biotechnology.
But looking for high-tech scientific solutions to the global food crisis is like asking your doctor for a cholesterol drug that will allow you to keep eating bacon at every meal. There are simpler and more elegant solutions right in front of us. If we can make some basic improvements to our food-chain efficiency, and heal a dysfunctional relationship with food, we’ll be well on our way to ending global hunger, no matter how many mouths there are to feed.
Some of the more comprehensive discussions of food economics (such as these from Scientific American and Nature) mention waste reduction as one piece of the puzzle. One testament to the increased awareness of food waste is the new wave of popularity for dumpster-diving. Grist’s “Greenie Pig” recently published a piece on her adventures as a first-time dumpster diver. To summarize, it was much harder than she expected. I can say that my own dumpster-dabbling has yielded similar disappointment. The dumpsters I find are usually gross, locked, barren of salvageable food, or some combination of the three. It’s especially slim pickings here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the popularity of diving has driven more store managers to lock up their trash or install those massive trash compactors that crouch behind larger stores like hungry metal trolls.
I know the waste is out there. So, if those piles of perfectly good food aren’t in dumpsters waiting conveniently for rescue, where are they? I starting rifling through Google search results and PDFs instead of dumpsters, and I found some pretty shocking information.
A frequently-cited USDA study found that in 1995, retail, service, and consumer food loss took up 27 percent of the edible food supply. A more recent study supported by the National Institutes of Health found that the proportion is becoming “progressively worse,” and calculates that America now wastes almost 40 percent of its available food. Those are no small potatoes.
If we waste 40 percent of our food, eliminating that waste would represent a 66 percent increase in available supply (isn’t it fun how percentages work?). While I’m confident that no country wastes food at quite the rate America manages, there could certainly be improvements made all over the world. We could start by channeling more food towards food banks and charities. Feeding America, formerly known as America’s Second Harvest, collects and distributes an impressive 3 billion pounds of food and grocery products per year, but that’s peanuts compared to the roughly 140 billion pounds that go to waste.
The Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1990 protects any person or corporation from liability when donating “apparently wholesome” food to nonprofit organizations, even if the food is aged or imperfect. However, managers of farms, restaurants, stores, and factories remain cautious about litigation, and a “better safe than sorry” attitude leads to the continued disposal of stupendous quantities of mostly good food. There’s also a convenience factor to simply dumping the stuff, rather than coordinating with an appropriate charity.
This ought to be just the kind of challenge that the Internet generation loves. Let’s create new apps, websites, and incentives that make it easier to donate food, and rapidly redistribute products with limited shelf lives. I know it’s possible. The challenge, I think, is that the problem of food waste is neither glamorous nor highly visible. In fact, what most of us see is a hyper-abundance of food, and that leads to a separate set of problems.
As of 2010, overweight people outnumbered hungry people in the world (1 billion vs 925 million). This implies a distribution problem, more than a production problem. Furthermore, the UN estimates it would take $30 billion per year to end world hunger. For comparison, the overweight and obese cost the US $270 billion per year in health costs and loss of productivity due to disability. That’s right. If we could eliminate our domestic overconsumption, we’d have enough spare cash to end world hunger nine times over. This is without considering the actual food saved when Americans stop overeating, which would be significant.
There’s another problem with America’s relationship with food: our love affair with meat. I am not a vegetarian. I think meat is delicious, and a natural part of a healthy balanced diet. But Americans consume close to 200 pounds of meat per year. On a daily basis we consume up to four times as much protein as is nutritionally necessary. Producing all that animal protein is also incredibly expensive.
About one-third of the earth’s ice-free land is involved in livestock production, and in the US, more than 50 percent of the grain crop goes to animal feed (PETA puts the figure as high as 70 percent). Converting plant protein to animal protein, usually by way of manure-filled feedlots, is only 20 percent efficient. If we reduced our meat consumption by half, and cultivated more human foods in the fields now dedicated to feed crops, we could increase our available food supply in the US by at least 66 percent and most likely more. This is without tallying the huge costs of water, fossil fuels, and environmental damage related to meat production.
If someone with a bit more time and a bit more mathematical know-how calculated how much we food we could save by avoiding waste, eating healthy, and consuming less meat, I’m guessing they could demonstrate that we could have more than enough food, at current production levels, to comfortably feed nine billion people. If the whole world became mostly vegetarian, I bet we could feed everyone twice over, if not more.
Of course, getting more good food to market doesn’t solve the problem of people too poor to buy food, or political tensions and civil wars disrupting supply to famine-stricken areas. But there are many simple methods of improving the situation. Rather than pinning all our hopes on the latest wonder-crops, we should invest more attention and time in fixing some of the deep dysfunctionality in our current system.