Waste not, want not

News sources frequently cite the world’s growing population and the possibility of future food shortages. We are warned that sometime in the next century the world will experience severe food shortages. We are told that farmers must somehow produce twice as much to feed future populations.

The truth is, we are not feeding the world today. Many people in the world already experience food shortages. Nine hundred twenty-five million people in the world go to bed hungry. Five million children under the age of five die in underdeveloped countries every year due to malnutrition. The problem is not simply one of the world having enough food. The problem is poverty, politics, greed and wasted food.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a mountain of the world’s food is wasted. The FAO estimates that one-third of all the food produced in the world is not eaten. Some crops are left in the field, some spoil for lack of adequate storage, some rot in warehouses for lack of transportation. In North America we waste 20 percent of all meat produced. Some spoils before it is distributed. Some is mishandled and made unfit for consumption. More than half of this wasted meat, however, is simply thrown away by grocery stores, restaurants, and by the rest of us.

To give some idea of the scale of our wastefulness, USDA statistics show that 8 billion pounds of edible meat is put in the garbage every year. That is the equivalent of approximately 16 million head of cattle sent to the landfill where it decomposes. Rotting food in the dump accounts for 34 percent of all the methane produced in the US. Methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. This problem has not gotten better over the years. Per capita food waste has increased by 50 percent since 1974.

We are all part of this problem. We don’t buy whole chickens and use every part. We buy chicken breasts and assume the processor has found another use for the rest of the bird. We expect the stores to have more than we need so we can always have what we want. Restaurants not only throw away what’s left on your plate, but unserved food that has been prepared and not eaten at the end of the day.

Because food is cheap, we think nothing of throwing away a quarter of what we produce. Perhaps the container of uneaten spaghetti in the back of your fridge doesn’t directly keep food out of someone else’s mouth, but when all the food wasted is added up it means tons of resources that are essentially thrown away. Fuel used to grow and transport crops and livestock is lost. The fertilizer and other crop inputs are in the garbage. The packaging is thrown away. We even pay to have the garbage hauled away, buried and burned. This misuse of resources by some of us has an impact on what is available for use by others. We don’t notice these expenses in the cost of our food because we pay for them in other ways. The costs are externalized. We pay for them in taxes which subsidize growing of food, disposing of garbage, and fixing highways. Others pay because these resources are not available to them to grow food or to get what they do grow to the market.

If the predictions of the world’s population growth are right, increasing agricultural production will not solve the problem of feeding the world’s expanding multitudes. We will have to waste less as well. New, appropriate technology needs to be developed to help small-scale farmers in underdeveloped countries to harvest and store their crops. Transportation in poor countries will have to be improved. We will need to stop throwing away as much as we eat.

The molding spaghetti in the back of the fridge does make a difference. Buy only what you can eat. Take home leftover from the restaurant or share a meal. Encourage restaurants to donate unused food to organizations that distribute it to those who need it. Buy food that is in season and dehydrate or freeze what you can’t eat today. Use your leftovers. Don’t just do it because there are starving children somewhere else in the world. Learning not to waste food, even though it is still relatively cheap, will help you and your family survive when food becomes scarce and expensive.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains