Column #180

Modern food mantras include affordability, convenience, flavorful, sustainability, earth friendly, healthy, fresh, local, humanitarian, organic, natural, and other notable clichés. Then we must take note of the overriding concern many have about man not being able to raise enough food to feed the planet’s growing human population. Of course global warming only adds to those worries and, naturally, many claim livestock grazing grasslands (like they have since time immemorial) is a primary culprit for that event.

How far back do we have to look to find respected economists who seriously worried about the world running out of food? The most famous example occurred over 200 years ago. Between 1798 and 1826 Thomas Robert Malthus published six editions of “An Essay on the Principle of Population” where he argued that populations multiply geometrically and food arithmetically. Consequently, whenever the food supply increases the population will expand and eliminate the abundance stunting living standards forevermore.

It’s estimated that in 1800 the world population was about 0.9 billion. Today it’s 7.7 billion or 8.55 times higher. Guess what? There’s more food than ever per capita and living standards are much higher! But are we finally reaching the limit?

As we ponder that question, we should also examine food loses. Did you know that about 650 pounds of food is lost and wasted every year for every American man, woman, and child? That amounts to 211.7 billion pounds of food. Since it’s estimated that an American adult consumes 2,000 pounds of food each per year, those 650 pounds amount to 25% of the original 2,650 pounds. For children that 650 pounds is a much larger percentage of what they eat. This means that global food loss and waste amount to between one-third and one-half of all food produced!

Here are some of the ways food is wasted or lost.

On average, U.S. farms lose about six billion pounds of crops annually due to pests, fungi, and weather extremes. Mechanical harvesters may pick overripe and immature crops, or miss part of a crop. Regulations, quality, and appearance standards result in food waste. Some crops are culled. In urban areas, fruit and nut trees often go unharvested because people don’t realize that the fruit is edible or fear it’s contaminated.

In storage, considerable losses can be attributed to pests and micro-organisms. Losses in the nutritional value, caloric value, and edibility also take a toll. Further losses are generated in the handling of food and by shrinkage in weight or volume. Food safety regulations cause loses.

Grocers throw away large quantities of food because of expiration dates. Due to strict cosmetic standards, misshapen or superficially bruised fruits and vegetables are tossed. An estimated six billion pounds of produce is wasted each year because of appearances. Because consumers only see perfect presentations they steer away from the slightest flaws. Fresh fish is another product with high discard rates ranging from 40 to 60 percent. Restaurants also throw away large quantities of food daily.

Consumers waste a lot of food that is still perfectly fine to eat because of deviations in sensory characteristics (odd shapes, discolorations, unfamiliar flavors) or because a best-before date is approaching or has passed. Americans generally have little respect for food and no longer train their children to only put on their plate what they can eat and eat what they take. In the school lunch program 60 percent of fresh vegetables and 40 percent of fresh fruit is thrown away. Students take a sip of milk from a carton or a bite from a hamburger then throw it away. The waste is horrendous and their formative habits generally follow them for life.

When it comes to consumers wasting food Americans are the world’s worst at 243 pounds per capita. That’s nearly 1,000 pounds annually for a family of four. Citizens of sub-Saharan Africa are the most frugal at 11 pounds per person annually. In countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, food scraps constitute around 19% of the waste dumped in landfills. There it rots and produces methane, a greenhouse gas.

Some countries are starting to address food waste with recycling efforts. Some food can be distributed to charitable organizations and more can go toward livestock feeds. Currently in the USA, many stores actually prevent poor or homeless people access to discarded food. It’s also against the law in most places to feed discarded food from restaurants and stores to livestock. When America was mostly rural and people grew, raised, and preserved much of what they ate, food waste was minimal because what wasn’t eaten was given away or recycled for livestock and pets. That’s when people had more respect for food.

One of my pet peeves is the discarding of food based on mere suspicion or fear rather than engaging the brain and making sure the food must actually be discarded. Some people throw away food because it’s flavor or color differed from what they thought it should be or what they are used to. Sometimes if the electricity is out for a day or two, they throw away everything that was a little soft in their freezer even though it stayed as cold as it would have been in a refrigerator. Most of the time, refrigerated food can be refrozen. It can also be cooked. But the “advice” these days is to trash it without even a thought of refreezing, cooking, or preparing it for a pet.

On the other side of the ledger of wasting food are the technological advances that are still powering increases in food production every year. Amazingly, many consumers fear new technology even though billions of examples have proven the technology is safe. Their fears are often motivated by fear-mongering charlatans who want to peddle their own money-making schemes. Generally speaking, urban dwellers assume farmers are dupes who know little to nothing about what they do. Yet the farmers keep growing more crops and raising more livestock on fewer acres than ever before in the history of man and more advances are on the horizon.

There is a grand future in food for mankind for many centuries to come because there is a lot of room for improvement. But consumers need to be part of the solution. To do so they need to have more respect for food which is difficult when, in terms of percentages of disposable income, Americans pay less for food than any other people on earth. Additionally, from my perspective consumers need to become more respectful of the nutritional characteristics of their food selections. Producers, processors, and food retailers respond to consumer demands. So if consumers want to satisfy their sweet tooth, they’ll get more sugar. If they want more grass-fed and Omega-3 meats they’ll get more of those.

All economists understand that.

To your health.

Ted Slanker

Ted Slanker has been reporting on the fundamentals of nutritional research in publications, television and radio appearances, and at conferences since 1999. He condenses complex studies into the basics required for health and well-being. His eBook, The Real Diet of Man, is available online.

Don’t miss these links for additional reading:

Food Waste from Wikipedia

Thomas Robert Malthus from Wikipedia

How Much Do Humans Eat By the Numbers? In the United States, It’s a Ton

Why Reducing Food Waste in School Meal Programs Matters

‘Ecomodern Eating’: Why Agricultural Productivity and Innovation Are Key to Sustainable Food and Farming by Dan Blaustein-Rejto

The Future of Food: Ten Trends in Food Sustainability

The True Cost of a Plate of Food: $1 in New York, $320 in South Sudan

World Population Growth by Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina