People flock to the Malthusian tales of human beings heading toward starvation as the population cruises toward a staggering 9 billion people. It’s usually the key underpinning of arguments for things like genetically modified crops and factory farming, and is the basis of furious insistence we need to greatly increase our production of food.
It probably shouldn’t be too surprising that developed nations waste as much food as all of Sub-Saharan Africa produces, or that the equivalent of half the world’s grains crops go to waste. The report also aptly points out that large quantities of food in the developing world are lost because of inadequate harvest and collection practices and weak logistics systems that leave grain rotting in ports or warehouses.
As of about seven years ago, Americans threw around 15 percent of the food they purchased, while Brazilians threw away about 20 percent. Both of these figures have probably changed since then, but I would guess not by much.
In the United States, a huge amount of waste happens in fast food restaurants or 7-11 type convenience stores that have Big Macs or rotisserie hot dogs sitting under heat lamps that must be thrown away every certain number of hours to meet health codes. This is not meant to make targets out of those businesses -- they do this because customers expect them to do it and would complain if they didn't.
I’m used to a lifestyle in which I can buy an entire roast chicken at just about any hour of the day on a moment’s notice. That’s often left me wondering what happens to all the chicken that’s left at the end of the day that by law cannot be sold and in some cases may not even be given to the homeless. It leaves me asking myself whether making food available in that abundance is really possible without wasting a significant quantity of it. The truth is I'm not an expert on this, but my guess is in many cases it’s cheaper to throw lots of food away than to tell customers that there’s nothing left for the day. How much food do groceries stores and restaurants throw away in my neighborhood? What would it look like if they really wanted to cut down on food waste? What would it take to educate consumers about food waste such that restaurants wouldn't face a backlash from people who are accustomed to getting nearly limitless quantities of food?
Unfortunately, these sorts of questions are no match for dramatic tales of nutritional doom that are usually accompanied by an incessant clock-ticking countdown until the day we all starve. The debate veers back toward GMO, the struggle for land around the world, the sagas of agricultural conglomerates breaking new boundaries in crop yields -- all relevant issues, but hardly more so than 1/3 of all food going down the drain.
In this context, the less sensationalist why-don’t-we-quit-doing-so-much-dumb-shit-with-food approach doesn’t stand a chance. Looking it this way would involve more prosaic day-to-day recommendations for dealing with the food problem: shop for what you need, eat what’s on your plate, do refrigerator sweeps to catch food before it rots, think systemically about how food systems around you are unintentionally wasteful.I’m glad to see the FAO trying to get people to think along these lines, because the debate so far has reminded me more of Lenny Bruce’s “We’re all gonna die!!!!” routine.