Feed people, not the trash can
Sept. 23, 2013
by Ivan Raconteur

There are times when I can’t help thinking we Americans aren’t very smart.

Some of those times occur when I read about the amount of food we waste.

We have heard dire projections that suggest even with advances in agricultural production, there will come a time in the not-so-distant future when farmers will no longer be able to feed all of the world’s population.

This is due, in part, to the rate at which the population is growing.

There are about 7 billion of us knocking around the world today, which is plenty crowded, as far as I am concerned.

If predictions are correct, the population could reach 9.6 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of hungry humans to feed.

There is growing concern that crop yields won’t increase fast enough to keep up with demand. One assumes there is also some limit beyond which productivity cannot be increased.

Even at today’s population levels, it has been reported about 870 million people worldwide suffer from chronic malnourishment. Adding a couple billion more people is likely to exacerbate the problem.

On a local level, it seems we hear with increasing frequency that food shelves are struggling to keep up with demand.

We have a problem, and the problem is likely to get worse.

In spite of this, we manage to waste about half of the food that is produced worldwide.

It seems absurd that we can be wasting so much food when there is a shortage, and there are people going without, but it is apparently true.

The reasons vary.

In some places, a large percentage of fruits and vegetables don’t make it from suppliers to consumers due to lack of refrigeration, or transportation issues.

In other areas, inadequate storage facilities lead to rodent infestation or other losses.

Even more absurd is waste due to appearance.

Some developed countries have become so fussy about the appearance of fruits and vegetables that producers don’t even bother to harvest parts of their crops that don’t meet appearance standards.

One assumes if a person is hungry enough, the last thing he will be worried about is the shape or color of the vegetables that are set before him.

Our obsession with appearance in all things is pathetic.

In the US, it has been estimated 7 percent of produce doesn’t make it out of the fields.

More is lost in the packaging, transportation, and processing steps.

As much as 40 percent of the food in the US is not consumed.

That seems like an enormous waste – not just in terms of food, but in the water, chemicals, and energy that are lost in its production.

Some estimates put the total food waste in the US at $165 billion annually. At that rate, it won’t take long before we are talking about some serious money.

According to a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimate, grocery stores throw away about $15 billion worth of fruits and vegetables every year.

That would surely be enough to feed a few people.

Most of the food that is discarded in the US ends up in landfills, rather than being composted. This generates methane – a greenhouse gas – creating more problems.

We are getting worse, not better. It has been reported we waste 50 percent more food in the US today than we did in the 1970s.

Much of this is preventable.

In fact, the thing that may be most preposterous is the fact that much of the wasted food is the result of confusion about food labeling. We throw away vast amounts of perfectly good food simply due to a lack of understanding.

More than 90 percent of Americans prematurely discard food because they have misinterpreted the dates stamped on the products, according to a report released last week.

Apparently, many consumers think a product’s “sell by” date indicates when the product will go bad.

According to a study conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, manufacturers use sell-by dates to encourage stores to sell a product soon enough that the item still has a shelf life after the consumer buys it.

Even “best before” and “use by” labels are misunderstood. These represent the manufacturers’ estimates of how long the food will be at peak quality, not the date it will go bad.

Confusion about date labels causes the average US household of four to lose about $455 each year on wasted food, according to one report.

Many consumers work hard to save money on their food purchases, but these savings will soon be wiped out if they throw food away after they buy it. That isn’t frugal at all.

We may not be able to do anything about the population explosion or world markets, but it sure seems like we could do a better job of standardizing labels for clarity, and educating consumers in our own country, so they could make sensible, informed decisions about the food they buy.

It is inexcusable that anyone should be hungry in a country as wealthy and productive as ours.

We do some dumb things once in awhile, but we are smart enough to fix this problem if we put our minds to it. Reducing the amount of perfectly good food we leave to rot in the field or toss into the garbage can would be a good place to start.

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