Squandering Our Harvest: Can We Change Our Wasteful Food Production System?

By Glenn Ashton · 15 Jan 2013

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Picture: chefsblade.monster.com
Picture: chefsblade.monster.com

We produce sufficient food to provide a healthy balanced diet for everyone on earth. Yet we squander vast amounts of this fare through a wasteful supply chain that fails to efficiently shift our food from farm to plate. It is time to fix this dysfunctional global supply system.

Interestingly - and contrary to common belief - end consumers are often the least wasteful link in the food chain. Yet in some countries like the United Kingdom nearly half of consumer-ready food is thrown away before it is eaten. The reasons for these enormous levels of wastage vary and are generally related to levels of national development and wealth.

A recent analysis undertaken by the UK based Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) (more on why engineers are advising us about food waste later!) exposes some staggering numbers. They estimate we collectively waste between a third and half of all of the food produced globally - between 1.2 and 2 billion tonnes every year.

This amount of waste is obscene in a world where an estimated 20% of humanity suffers from food insecurity. The study highlights some major gaps and shortcomings in our global food supply chain and illustrates how our broken system fails us on unprecedented scales.

This inefficiency is worrying both from a humanitarian perspective, but perhaps more importantly, from an environmental sustainability perspective. We are not simply wasting food; we are wasting fuel, fertiliser, water and precious arable land. We are not feeding hungry bellies but entities within a greedy, dystopian food production model.

A profitable system clearly does not equate to efficiency. While most farmers extract sufficient profit to remain in business – or are subsidised to provide inefficient services – around a quarter of wasted food occurs at farm level.

This is not always the fault of farmers. For instance in developed nations it is unprofitable to harvest misshapen fruit or vegetables no matter how tasty or nutritious they may be. While such products could be sent to less selective markets, distance renders this option unprofitable. In the UK nearly half of all potatoes grown do not even reach the market.

Another quarter of wastage occurs after harvest, during handling and storage. Different factors impact different farming models and regions. For instance it is just acceptable to waste 0.75% of the crop in storage in Australia. Yet recently in Ghana 50% of a million tonne maize crop was lost through poor storage. India wastes around 18 million tonnes of wheat annually through bad storage, an amount equal to Australia’s total average harvest.

Economists and food companies constantly remind us how miraculous our food production system is. We are told how food reaches market efficiently and on time. Clearly this is a lie of gargantuan proportions. While the system may be economically efficient (from a limited perspective), it is extremely inefficient from a realistic, practical angle.

The trade in major commodity crops is controlled by a handful of large distribution companies (the ABCD companies) who cynically place profit above efficiency. Food is not even called food but “softs” in this nether world of price speculation.

Water use is another major concern. Agriculture is the biggest water user of any industry, utilising around 70% of the total, or about 2.7 trillion cubic meters per year. On face value alone we lose up to 35% of our total annual water supply through wasteful supply chain practices, let alone inefficient irrigation methods.

Worse, around one third of readily available fresh water is already exploited. If we follow the existing food production model, the IME estimates we would require between 10 and 13.5 trillion cubic meters per year by 2050. Even allowing for some increase in efficiency, we would have very little reserve capacity. This will have devastating impacts on already water-stressed ecological regions and systems.

The final quarter of food wastage occurs at the distribution level – between the producers, supermarkets and consumers. Obviously this amount changes significantly between first and third world models – however a mid developed nation like South Africa wastes around 20% at this level, while in more developed nations like the UK and the USA this waste approaches half of all consumer-ready food.

Causes include unrealistic use-by dates, fussy consumers and cheap food. Consumers in developed countries pay historically low proportions of income for food. These low costs promote a culture of wastefulness.

So why are engineers examining these shortcomings in our food supply system? Simply because they feel that they are able to significantly improve efficiencies within the existing system. Engineers are able to design and produce more efficient water delivery systems. They are capable of improving food storage methods, both dry and refrigerated. They can improve how we handle, transport and even manufacture our food.

But possibly one of the most important issues raised by the IME study - and echoed by numerous other studies around the world which reach similar conclusions – is that our main problems are not in a failure to produce sufficient food to feed an increasing population.

Our production systems are highly, possibly even excessively efficient from an economic perspective. However from an ecological and sustainability context they are massively inefficient and wasteful. What we need to manage is how we are able to practically and affordably feed a growing population with what we have.

Do we really need industrial scale agriculture to feed the world when we are diverting vast amounts of food crops into “biofuels” (a misnomer if ever there was), made from maize, sugar cane or palm oil? There are far more efficient ways to provide energy than through agricultural production techniques that require up to 25 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce a single calorie of food energy.

Do we really need to pursue commodity driven agriculture based on a profoundly inefficient meat production system? Can we waste our energy, water, land and ecological resources when studies clearly show we should be shifting toward locally based, diverse, robust food production systems in order to conserve these in order to deal with climatic instability and global population growth?

How can we justify continuing to fish out our oceans while wasting up to 60% of the fish species we catch as by-catch, while wasting more when the fish is landed?

We can support our growing global population. But in order to do so we must significantly improve how we produce, store, manufacture and manage our food supplies. Allied to this, we need to stabilise global population and accelerate the shift toward a negative global growth rate.

Even if we only examine global carrying capacity from the simple perspective of food production and the consequent human impacts on our fragile ecological support systems, it is blatantly clear we must change how we manage our affairs. We simply cannot continue to waste half of our land, water, fuel and agricultural resources through market and system inefficiencies.

The earth will certainly survive humans. The real and rather more immediately relevant question is whether humans will survive what they are doing to the earth. Our shift to a more equitable and sustainable world must begin by fixing our broken agricultural model.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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15 Jan

Squandering Our Harvest

Well done on a good article. The good news is that with so much wastage, better efficiency has a hope of providing enough food for Earth's growing population. But how on earth does the system 'get changed' considering the apathy & ignorance of consumers and power and profit hunger of the powers that 'control' producers.

I was wondering what % of our income middle to upper income consumers pay for food today as opposed to the past. Your article touches on this. But you suggest that if consumers at the top of the food chain paid more, the middle men would rake in the additional income rather than feed it down to struggling workers and farmers at the bottom of the production chain. I suppose that Fair Trade should be the norm - a tricky one for a society geared to prices rather than costs.

Time to enlarge my veggie patch!!!

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Glenn Ashton Verified user
15 Jan

@kim - percentage of income spent on food

Thanks Kim - off the top of my head the proportion of income spent on food is something like 20% in developed, higher income nations and >50% in poor, developing nations.
The proportion paid in developed nations has dropped by at least half over the past 50 years, as food prices have fallen in real terms.
One adaptation to feed more people would be to have food less linked to financial payment - most food is produced by peasant farmers, in low input farms. However these farmers are often not even counted as such because they do not pay for inputs, nor earn income, hence do not exist according to World Bank or GDP figures. It is only when food is monetised that it becomes an economically measurable entity - when it is bartered or traded does not register on the dominant economic model.

Glenn Ashton