With the human population projected to be around nine billion by the year 2050, the question of how to feed all of the new mouths in a world already struggling with dwindling resources is the most serious problem agriculture now faces (1). Experts have stated that we will need to grow 60 percent more food than we currently produce to prevent widespread famine. As a result, agriculture around the world is being pressured to find new and improved ways to grow and raise more and more product. Yet even while an increasing amount of land is cleared to make room for crops and pastures for livestock, a new awareness of how much food is already being produced then discarded could potentially alter foundational concepts on how to feed the world. This new data suggest that ending world hunger may depend more on altering current production and distribution systems than on simply increasing the amount grown.
The waste of perfectly edible food is a global problem. In the U.S. alone, about 40 percent of all food cultivated ends up in the trash. The reasons for such waste are abundant and variable, though a good portion of it has nothing to do with the quality of the food in question. In fact, some of the waste is simply due to aesthetics; bent cucumbers and misshapen peaches are but two examples of the produce that makes up the six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables that go unharvested or unsold in the United States each year (2). The uncertainties of the economy also mean that a farmer grows more than what the market demands and as a result will leave entire orchards and fields unharvested (1).
Even more food is wasted at the retail level. According to a detailed report released by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) in 2012, around 43 billion pounds of food were thrown away in 2008 (1). The problem is that food waste, rather than paper or plastic waste, is the number one material taking up landfill space. The decomposing food also produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas about 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide (3). According to Feeding America, the nation’s leading hunger-relief charity, about one in six United States citizens face hunger on a daily basis (2). Yet, if the amount of food thrown away is any indication, we are growing more food than we know what to do with.
As a nation, the United States grows and raises more than 590 billion pounds of food each year. At the same time, however, we also waste enough food to fill the Rose Bowl—the 90,000-seat football stadium in Pasadena, California—every day (4). When faced with such numbers, the insistence that increased food production is the only way to feed the growing population appears transparently counterproductive. Our fields and farms are producing more than enough to keep us all satisfied. Our primary focus should be figuring out how to keep produce from spoiling before it can be eaten, rather than how one could increase the amount that is grown.
1. Hirsch, Jesse, and Reyhan Harmanci.“Junk Food.” In Modern Farmer, Issue 2, Fall 2013. 39-47.
2. Feeding America: Hunger Facts. http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts.aspx
3. Lappé, Anna. “Diet for a Hot Planet: Livestock and Climate Change.” In The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories. Ed. Daniel Imhoff. Watershed Media, 2010. 240-247.
4. Bloom, Jonathan. American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of It’s Food (and what we can do about it). Da Capo Press, 2010.