Food Waste: The Next Food Revolution

Household food trash NYJesse Hirsch and Reyhan Harmanci have a tremendous article about food waste in the new Modern Farmer, which tells us that “Half the food in the last year was thrown out. One billion people are hungry. The next food revolution is about what you’re not eating”:

How are we going to feed 9 billion people by 2050? The answer to this question — or the lack thereof — is one of the biggest issues in agriculture today. Experts estimate that we need to grow 60 percent more food than we currently produce. And as a result, there is a push to constantly create more. More miracle crops. More monocultures. More monocrops. More seeds. More food.

But are we missing the point? Currently, in the U.S., almost half of our food — 40 percent of what we grow— ends up in the garbage. Globally, food waste is rising to 50 percent as developing nations struggle with spoilage and Western nations simply toss edible food away. Instead of turning our food system inside out to meet that 2050 deadline, why don’t we simply waste less?

Do the math. If we just get better about using the food we grow, we’re already almost a quarter of the way there.

We need to start somewhere. Let’s start at the farm.

Farm to Table to Landfill

In Hackettstown, New Jersey, vegetable farmer Greg Donaldson leads informal tours around his fields to show visitors a large rotting pile of mostly edible produce.

The pile is a hub for perfectly good cucumbers (bent), strawberries (overripe but delicious), tomatoes (small blemishes), peaches (bruised) and garlic (split cloves). Stalks of broccoli, ears of corn, full heads of lettuce, eggplants, pears: It’s a perverse cornucopia, left to decay in the sun. At the beginning of summer, the pile fits in a dumptruck bed; By fall, it needs multiple tractor-trailers to haul it away.The sight of so much wasted produce used to eat at Donaldson, make him feel bad. But he and other farmers have learned to live with it as part and parcel of being a farmer. According to the charity Feeding America, more than 6 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables go unharvested or unsold each year. It’s because much of the food on a farm falls victim to aesthetic trifles: the misshapen peach, the tomato too large to fit in a three-pack. Or in an uncertain economy, a farmer grows more than he market demands, then leaves entire fields and orchards unharvested. We are growing more food than we know what to do with.

And this early-stage waste is only the beginning. From transport to processor to retailer to consumer, food waste affects every step of the supply chain between farm and fork…

[continues at Modern Farmer]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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8 Comments on "Food Waste: The Next Food Revolution"

  1. Jelly Belly | Oct 3, 2013 at 7:03 pm |

    I’ve read this article previously and took it too heart. If I can’t freeze it, I won’t eat it. I’ve learned how to freeze many different fruits and vegetables and my food waste has dropped dramatically. Its not only about waste, but its about the bottom dollar and how much more I save a month. Frozen food for thought.

  2. BrainofJFK | Oct 3, 2013 at 9:59 pm |

    I am currently working my way through college at my local walmart and i am in the meat department. We easily throw away 100$ of meat every night, and sometimes much much more. A lot of it goes out of date, but a lot of it is because customers will leave it in, say, hardware. Its really sad when you think about this going on at every retail grocery chain and how much that adds up to. My grandfather grew up poor in the depression. He didnt always know where his next meal would come from. People today forget that food is a neccessity, not a luxury. Never take for granted that you can walk down to the store and feed yourself, many now dont have that privilege.

  3. Cortacespedes | Oct 4, 2013 at 1:05 am |

    I hear ya. I work in food distribution and logistics (produce mostly) and the amount thrown away can be outrageous. The most of any one item I’ve had to toss is 1,500 lbs of bananas in one day. They were good bananas, perfectly edible, but they had ripened too fast. They could have been sold to any banana bread manufacturer or the like, but the logistics of it all wouldn’t allow for it. (Logistics, logistics, logistics there’s the key!)

    Walmart’s meat department is a fairly infamous money loser for the stores. With no in-house butcher (what chain store has one of those these days?) the meat comes in “case-ready”, which means “gassed” and “needled”. The meat was probably retail cut and packaged hundreds of miles away which requires a lot of “preservation” techniques to keep it looking ok.

    Your store should have a “Feed America” program tho, right? Where you box up nearly out of date “product” then freeze it for pickup.

    Walmart gets a nice tax break for that. They wouldn’t do anything just for the “good” of the community.

    Every store has trouble with “meat-bombs”. When you walk the aisles you can find pork chops in the damnedest places!!!

    Computer ordering systems add to the waste in my opinion. They don’t factor in sell by dates correctly for the amounts received. A meat department in Walmart would be better served if it threw the “Gemini” into the compactor and let the department manager do a real job of actual management.

    • Rex Vestri | Oct 4, 2013 at 2:45 pm |

      Thanks for a great idea! I think I’ll go plant some “meat bombs” in my local Wal-Monster. I hate Wal-Mart! Fuck ’em! Boycott ’em!

  4. Alan Morse Davies | Oct 4, 2013 at 2:16 pm |

    How are we going to feed 9 billion people in 2050?

    Why does there have to be 9 billion people in 2050 to feed?

    We’ve adapted our environment, removed our natural predators (in the developed world), found cures to diseases that previously killed us and now we have a population explosion that threatens to starve us if we’re poor.

    One of the problems with the population explosion is that the U.S. is often aspired to as the life that people in developing nations want, and the U.S. has set an incredibly wasteful example. If 1.6 billion Chinese get to live like Americans, game over. U.S. wastefulness needs to be addressed for the good of all so on that point I agree with the article.

    If we live on a planet with limited resources and our population growth is expanding beyond the capacity of the planet and our capabilities to supply… then there are too many of us.

    We can speculate all we want about magic bullets from the future solving hunger but in reality even if we do get magic bullets they’ll only work for the richer nations and take a terrible toll on everyone else.

    Ecologically, having children is the most selfish thing we can ever do. For each child we have in the West, we increase our carbon footprint by a factor of 40.

    Why is it not OK to say that there are too many of us? We make that judgement all the time about other species whose population growth destroys ecosystems.

    Children in the U.S. consume roughly 20 times what the planet can provide based on dividing everything equally, the U.K. is about 10 times.

    How about North America and Europe say this: every child you have will ensure that 15 other children starve. Adopt!

    Never going to happen.

    The argument is that we have to feed 9 billion people in 2050. We don’t feed 6 billion people now. It’s already not working. How is that invisible?

    It’s invisible because we like to pretend we care, yet we largely don’t in the West.

    We like to forget where the things we buy came from and who made them and we don’t want to imagine their lives so we blank them out as if it’s not our responsibility.

    The others, who don’t make anything we buy and already don’t have enough can woo our sense of empathy with a child’s distended belly and face covered in flies in a refugee tent for a donation of $25.

    We already don’t care about all 6 billion yet we currently have the resources to feed everyone and don’t.

    How will we care more about 9 billion? We won’t. We’ll be assholes breeding kids that consume more than their fair share and giving token payments to TV sob stories about the terrible plight of the poor in other countries that make us feel like we really care about them.

    If we really care about the rest of the world in the West, then we wouldn’t have children. If anyone that goes on to have children in the West wants to then claim they care about the planet, too late. It’s the same impact as choosing a Sherman tank as your primary mode of transport, then driving around the block continuously for 20 years. A Prius would be like the $25 refugee donation.

    • moremisinformation | Oct 4, 2013 at 10:09 pm |

      “We”, “we”, “we”. You could title your post, “Magick Pronouns and the Power of Collectivist Thinking”.

      Wouldn’t the most effective means of fighting the populate ‘problem’, be for all those who shared your concern on an equal level, to kill themselves?
      Each one of you could, in your martyrdom, help to feed 20 less fortunate people.

      Of course, nothing in your Malthusian rant mentions anything about how there is currently enough food available to feed the planet one-and-a-half times or that even the UN expects to see world population begin declining by 2050.

      Hunger is a political issue through and through – from the lack of distribution and imagination to the enabling of corporate food conglomerates and subsidizing cheap, nutrition-less garbage.

      • Alan Morse Davies | Oct 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm |

        You mistake me for someone that is passionate about feeding the world, I’m not. I just hate bullshit arguments and hypocrisy.

        Thank you for suggesting that me and all those that think like me kill themselves, I’ll pass. I’m guessing you are American? Maybe Serbian?

        I raised a question which doesn’t get raised very often, playing devils advocate, treating the topline population forecasts as fact.

        I was suggesting what people in the West could do if they genuinely cared about feeding the planet rather than just wearing that care as an eco badge.

        In reference to “nothing in your Malthusian rant mentions anything about how there is currently enough food to feed the planet”, wrong.

        I said this:

        “We already don’t care about all 6 billion yet we currently have the resources to feed everyone and don’t.”

        Make a better argument, I’ll listen.

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