The Clean Plate Club

From Senegal to St. Louis, the world wastes an astonishing amount of food every year. So why is it so hard to cut down on leftovers, save the environment, and feed the hungry?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The numbers are nothing short of astounding. According to the United Nations, roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption every year simply gets wasted. In a world where global hunger still kills more people every year than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined, 1.3 billion tons of food annually is lost through inefficiency, ignorance, and mismanagement. That’s disgusting, if not downright criminal.

The impact of such inefficiency is enormous, costing the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars, including among some of the poorest people in the world who can least afford it. The environmental impact is also significant, and the U.N. estimates that the carbon footprint from "food produced and not eaten," would rank behind only the United States and China when considered in terms of global annual emissions. The water annually required to produce this food that is never consumed equals three times the volume of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva.

The problem of food and agricultural waste besets both the developed and developing world alike, but in starkly different ways as food makes it way from the field or fishery to your fork (or not, rather).

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, waste by actual consumers is very small, almost negligible. Poorer families tend to buy less food at a time and — because these purchases represent an important percentage of their income — they are quite efficient when it comes to food preparation and consumption. Instead, much more of the food waste in the developing world comes further upstream in the production process.

Crops are inefficiently farmed with outdated tools, and often harvested early because farmers are under economic and climactic duress. To get meat, fruits, vegetables and fish to market in the developing world often means navigating lousy roads, using warehouses without proper refrigeration, facing greater vulnerability to pests, and any number of other factors that drive up spoilage and losses. A gallon of milk doesn’t last nearly as long when it is transported in a can that ends up sitting in the hot sun under a banana leaf.

Most of the fixes for agricultural waste in the developing world can be found through improving infrastructure (including providing more predictable electricity), better storage facilities, and improved techniques for harvesting and drying food.

The problems in the developed world are equally consequential, but remarkably self-inflicted. The U.N. estimates that households in Britain waste some 6.7 million tons of food annually, and the cost of wasted food in the United States surpasses $43 billion a year. The Natural Resources Defense Council places an even higher price tag on this waste, estimating $165 billion of food waste in America every year, or 240 pounds of food per American annually. (Just as a frame of reference, the average American adult male now weighs in at a disturbingly hefty 196 pounds.)

But in Europe and North America the problem isn’t locusts, non-existent cold chains, or broken roads and bridges but how we perceive food and its use. For example, in the United State alone, grocery stores discard $10-15 billion in food that is close to its sell-by date or damaged. Yet, sell-by dates are something of a myth, and are designed to measure optimal quality rather than food safety. Most food is good well after the date by which many Americans view it as somehow becoming radioactive.

The pressure for "perfect looking" food also contributes to a great deal of discarded in more developed countries. Tristam Stuart, while researching the book Waste: Understanding the Global Food Scandal, visited a British carrot farm where he found that 25-30 percent of all carrots produced there were either discarded or used as animal feed because of aesthetic defects — they weren’t straight or orange enough to pass what someone’s idealized view of the perfect Peter Cottontail carrot should look like. A recent article in Science Magazine confirmed what many have long suspected, that the perfectly uniform tomato varieties favored by growers for their appearance actually don’t taste as good as their less uniform cousins — thus the recent rise in popularity of "ugly tomatoes."

Farmers in the developed world also tend to plant extra crops in case yields are lower than expected, and then discard many of these crops if yields are higher or market prices are not competitive.

But there have been some important steps forward. The U.N. High Level Panel looking at the next round of Millennium Development Goals after 2015 suggested a global target on reducing post-harvest loss and waste, and reducing agricultural waste features prominently in the secretary general’s Zero Hunger Challenge. The European Parliament has called for reducing food waste on the continent by 50 percent by 2025. "Love Food Hate Waste," a government-funded NGO in Britain, has run an aggressive advocacy campaign and worked with both consumers and food retailers in an effort that has already been cited as cutting waste in that country by 18 percent. The Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency launched a similar effort in the United States in June. And now, some Hong Kong restaurants have taken to charging patrons 64 cents per ounce for the leftovers left on their plates, reflecting the cost of food waste in landfills.

The most promising solutions will likely come from the private sector as they wake up and realize that billions of dollars in lost food are billions of dollars in lost profit. In fact, the former president of the Trader Joe’s grocery chain has plans to launch a chain of stores selling prepared food made with past-sell-by-date products, and the Approved Foods website in Britain sold 300,000 past-sell-by-date Cadbury eggs in just two weeks. Sorry — they’re now out of stock. Waste not, want not, indeed.

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