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New U.N. FAO Report Indicates 30% of Food Lost or Wasted
May 11, 2011 2:43 PM   Subscribe

A new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicates that 1.3 billion tons, or nearly one-third of all food produced in the world is lost or wasted. The full report is available here (Warning: PDF).
posted by epsilon (30 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
What an interesting dovetail with the previous post....
posted by digitalprimate at 2:46 PM on May 11, 2011


Food waste is more a problem in industrialized countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash.

Unfortunately, it's my understanding that there are laws and/or regulations that prohibit retailers from giving there unsellable-yet-perfectly-good food to the hungry. I'm assuming a lot of that red tape actually comes from wanting homeless and other disadvantaged people from accidentally getting food poisoning (and then suing) or some such, but there's got to be a way to protect people from that sort of thing while still, you know, FEEDING THEM. Gah.
posted by Gator at 2:50 PM on May 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Who's on-third?
posted by The Confessor at 2:52 PM on May 11, 2011


I work at a hostel, where we serve food to tables of 8 in one dish from which you help yourself. We throw out so much it's unbelievable. One table wants more potatoes, they ask us, we have to cook spare in case as it always happens: at the end, so many tables send back a dish still half full. The only way to prevent it is have everyone traipse to the front to be served prison canteen style... And there are always the vegetarians who didn't bother to send word ahead of time and get shocked if we don't have spare vegetarian option, so we always cook double... So I can easily believe it. We feed it to the gulls. But i bet it's like the UK reports, they do it by weight, and carcass bones weigh a lot. Who now eats pig's head or pork cheese? (Boil carcass till forms a jelly. Carcass is bones with meat scrapings on.) Only the Germans still eat that sort of thing!
posted by maiamaia at 2:54 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Frozen food is totally underrated. I started buying mostly frozen food, which has become easier and easier since some Hudson Valley companies are now freezing local organic high-quality produce in serving-size packs.

But then the problem shifts to the environmental impact of the vaccum pack plastic...
posted by melissam at 2:54 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately, it's my understanding that there are laws and/or regulations that prohibit retailers from giving there unsellable-yet-perfectly-good food to the hungry.

I think that it is mostly an issue of corporate policy. I've been involved with a couple Food Not Bombs campaigns, and most of the food is donated from grocery stores, bakeries, etc.
posted by Three Books at 2:56 PM on May 11, 2011


Gator--I know it seems counter-intuitive, but the homeless aren't always the most appropriate beneficiaries of extra food. A few years back, my husband's restaurant had way too much lamb (long story about cancelled wine dinner) and rather than let it spoil, he tried to donate it to a local soup kitchen and was turned down as lamb was too unfamiliar to the clients. When this happens now, he just gives it to the staff and if they don't want it, to a local dog rescue.

But when you read the linked story--no big surprises
"Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food. "

Because things spoil? And the study was undertaken for the
international packaging industry trade fair.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:58 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


But then the problem shifts to the environmental impact of the vaccum pack plastic...

And growing corn to make the ethanol to fuel the power plant of the future to run the freezer where our larders of frozen food sit for years...

I hate wasting food, so I'm the one in the house that'll eat that thing that might not still be good - it'll be my bane one day, but dammit. We still throw a ton of food out. I need to start composting again. I quit when I no longer had time for a vegetable garden, but I could still toss it on the lawn, I suppose.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:04 PM on May 11, 2011


Food waste is more a problem in industrialized countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash.

Yeah, but sometimes we're not sure if the food is perfectly edible, and we have to ask "Should I eat this?"
posted by marxchivist at 3:05 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Tossing food out isn't a problem if it ends up in compost. Landfills are an ecological disaster waiting to happen.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:08 PM on May 11, 2011 [6 favorites]


Tossing out perfectly good food into the compost IS a problem if it could be allocated to preventing another human from starving instead. I am pro-compost. I wish it wasn't so easy to have a surplus of it sometimes, though.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:23 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've always wondered at what point in the process of production that they start counting food energy. There's loads of technically edible stuff in regular farms and in the wild that "go to waste" in the sense of "don't end up in people."

I guess this is the distinction they're drawing between "food loss" and "food waste," but it's interesting to note they conflate them for the press release.
posted by Earthtopus at 3:45 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


We're not doing great on water either.
posted by Trurl at 3:47 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


I highly recommend Jonathan Bloom's American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half Its Food (And What We Can Do About It) for US-specific details like:
The average American sends more than half a pound of food to the landfill each day . . . we're stashing pockets of greenhouse gases [methane] in the ground as little surprises for the next generation.

On a macroeconomic level, our waste throughout the food chain spurs price increases. If less food were wasted, we wouldn't need to grow as much, which would lower input costs. To keep up with the anticipated waste, we've had to grow more crops, depleting the soil at a faster rate, requiring more fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation, all of which come at a price, making food more expensive (and doing a number on the environment).

The percentage of [wasted food] easily outpaces the 15 percent national hunger rate. . . . if we set our minds to maximizing food efficiency, we would overcome our distributional challenges. The political will to use our excess food existed . . . from 1996 to 1998 [marking] the first and only time that our federal government has employed someone whose job was to encourage the recovery of America's potential food waste. As the USDA's coordinator of food recovery and gleaning, Joel Berg encouraged farmers to donate unsold crops and/or allow gleaners to recover what they hadn't already harvested.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 3:54 PM on May 11, 2011


Seconding the suggestion that it's half as bad if at least it ends up as compost. However, that's obviously not the case most of the time.

There might be an interesting opportunity for community gardens and compost makers to help out. They could have deals with supermarkets and restaurants to take suitable waste of their hands (kind of like bio diesel makers do with frying oils).

Personally I keep all vegetable scraps, bag them and freeze them and use them for vegetable stock. It's the best I can do (I currently don't have a garden/ability to compost at my apartment).
posted by Hairy Lobster at 4:00 PM on May 11, 2011


"Fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers have the highest wastage rates of any food. "

Because things spoil?


My wife has this terrible habit of buying the big bulk bags of carrots. I don't much care for carrots and rarely eat them. She likes them, but rarely eats them despite what she thinks. I feel like I'm throwing a fairly large bag of foul floppy carrots out every time I clean out the fridge. She insists she is getting a good deal by buying in bulk. I try to convince her that she's paying the price of 20 cheap carrots for the use 1 or 2, but it does not register. "The grocer sells them individually! Just buy the amount you need!" I plead.
posted by Hoopo at 4:33 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


Earthtopus: There's loads of technically edible stuff in regular farms and in the wild that "go to waste" in the sense of "don't end up in people."

Bloom:
The last time the Department of Agriculture studied [food waste] was 1997, when it estimated that we waste 27 percent of available food. And even the authors of that study admitted that their waste findings were likely too low, as they didn't include "preharvest, on-the-farm and farm-to-retail losses," owing to a lack of data.

There are few studies on food waste partly because there just aren't that many people who want to tally unharvested lettuces -- or any other kind of wasted food.
The linked press release on food loss vs food waste in developing vs developed countries:

Food losses — occurring at the production, harvest, post-harvest and processing phases — are most important in developing countries, due to poor infrastructure, low levels of technology and low investment in the food production systems.

Food waste is more a problem in industrialized countries . . .


Which differs from Bloom's assertion that
Farms usually do have a surplus, but it's often unharvested and, thus, hard to access. Food manufacturers have massive amounts of assembly-line excess, but it's not always in readily usable forms. For instance, when workers on the line at a North Carolina soup factory see a spotty potato, they knock it off the conveyor belt, but also end up knocking off everything around it, too, because of the operation's quick pace. Supermarkets are a great source for food recovery, but even their volume pales in comparison to wholesale loss. For sheer bang for the buck, excess food from wholesalers is our best bet for reducing hunger. . . . Redistribution is the real difficulty . . . some recovered foods don't reach America's hungry due to geography and perishability.
Discussion of those difficulties leads naturally to Joel Berg and the role the federal government so recently played in food recovery and hunger alleviation. Why, one might ask, didn't such a commonsense, morally upstanding program like this USDA Food Recovery and Gleaning Initiative only last for three years?
The idea of feeding the hungry with food that would otherwise be discarded seems like a universal, apolitical idea. But Berg, a Clinton appointee, found out that there is no such thing. "When I left, I gave the Bush administration this whole long memo on how they could continue this, rename it the faith-based initiatve -- because many of the groups I work with were fundamental Christian groups -- and they totally blew it off."
The Guardian:
These days, if you call the USDA to ask for information about gleaning, you will be connected with the Society of St Andrew (Sosa), a privately funded, faith-based organisation that does an excellent job salvaging approximately 25m lb of food.

Sosa only has offices in eight states, however, and volunteer operations in an additional 11 states. What happens to discarded food in the other 31 states is anybody's guess.

posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 4:36 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


I actually find the phenomenon of food wastage and obesity go hand in hand and it all stems from the (irrational) cultural trope that going hungry is the Worst Thing That Can Happen To You.

It's the reason families tend to cook too much food and then have to throw it away? The same reason why, when making a decision, people tend to lean towards ordering a bit too much rather than too little, then end up stuffing themselves in order to finish it and not "waste" the food.

I feel as though many problems could be solved if we could just convince people of this - feeling hungry is ok. Not being able to stuff yourself until you feel "full" is ok. If you cooked too little and only eat a half portion for lunch that's ok. Missing an entire meal is also ok. Dogs eat one meal a day - feeling hungry is a mostly psychological phenomenon - our bodies are conditioned to eat at a certain time, by certain stimuli, and so we feel hungry at that certain time. (as an experiement if you consistently skip a particular meal, you won't feel hungry as that meal time approaches) Our bodies are wonderful machines, we can compensate for caloric deficits and overloads with ease for a surprising amount of time, which explains why it's not always easy to lose weight. You can even fast for several days in a row and your budy still still somehow pull out enough blood sugar for you to keep going and at damn near normal functioning. Running out of food and eating a half portion is really not the end of the world.
posted by xdvesper at 4:38 PM on May 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


We could also, you know, reduce our agricultural subsidies and ultimately produce less, after some farms close up shop. It doesn't feed starving children abroad, but you had no plan, infrastructure, etc. for that anyways.

On preview, I'll reinforce xdvesper's comment by noting that "calorie restriction is one of the few dietary interventions shown to increase both median and maximum lifespan in a variety of species, among them yeast, fish, rodents and dogs."
posted by jeffburdges at 4:43 PM on May 11, 2011


Gator, I have relatives who use Second Harvest here in Wisconsin. Frankly, they seem to have plenty of good, saleable food to just give away as it is, and many of the clients are picky about what they get now. (You know -- loading up on the free ice cream, leaving piles of broccoli on the table.) Even though we're a county with some of the highest unemployment in the country, thanks to an auto plant closure, we have very few homeless and hungry, according to the people who go out there and inventory such things.

Really, I think it's not that there are hungry people in the US unable to get food, it's that most of the waste is right here in industrialized countries where few of the world's hungry live. As with so many things, it's a distribution problem.

The "First World problem" that we do have is in fact childhood obesity and diabetes -- among the poor. It's too much of the wrong foods, not too little food.
posted by dhartung at 5:27 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


We dump fertilizer on our lawns and water them, then use very inefficient gas engines to cut the grass. Then we quench our thirst with water sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and stuff our mouths hamburgers from cattle fattened on a feedlot. The hamburger are grilled on charcoal grills for ten minutes, but the coals will stay hot for hours. We pay to haul away the grass clippings and leftovers in a big gas powered dump truck and dump it all into a landfill. Meanwhile children freeze and starve all over the world because their parents lack fuel for stoves and grain for bread.

Your lawn looks amazing though, I like how you laid down a pattern in the grass like on a baseball field. Man this is a juicy burger. You mind if I take a Coke from the fridge?
posted by humanfont at 5:53 PM on May 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


The "First World problem" that we do have is in fact childhood obesity and diabetes -- among the poor. It's too much of the wrong foods, not too little food.

dhartung, I think you've put your finger on the American Tragedy here with the juxtaposition of that line with this one:

Frankly, they seem to have plenty of good, saleable food to just give away as it is, and many of the clients are picky about what they get now. (You know -- loading up on the free ice cream, leaving piles of broccoli on the table.)


This sucks. Especially when you really parse the phrase, "it's too much of the wrong foods." I gotta say, this smacks to me of "we shouldn't have ice cream at the Second Harvest because people will eat it for dinner and ignore the good, fresh vegetables that would actually do them some long-term good." Did you mean it like that? I'm sincerely not trying to be snarkish here - it was kind of an ambiguous comment that contained a great deal to think about.

(And when I said "this sucks" I didn't mean your comment - I meant the fact that this happens).
posted by deep thought sunstar at 6:14 PM on May 11, 2011


Landfills are an ecological disaster waiting to happen.

This is - mostly - untrue (in the West, at any rate, and especially in countries with plenty of room like the US and Australia).

Landfills, if built and managed properly - which most are - are actually not ecological disasters in potential at all. On the contrary, most landfills are fairly predictable, relatively inert and easily located. The two big issues interfering with this are asbestos firstly, and proximity to a water table/water source secondly.

The thing about food waste is that whilst it's very headline catching to see food being wasted in refigerators etc, it's actually at heart a supply chain issue. The vast, vast majority of food being thrown out in the world is not from people's homes, it's in supermarkets and other places like that. To change this system would require a complete revolution in the way we buy and eat food; change on a simply massive scale. People are accustomed to going to a store, and buying fresh food that they want - that simply wouldn't happen if we reduced waste in a significant way, and fragile food - everything from figs, to chicken - probably wouldn't make it to supermarkets at all in fresh form.

The other issue is that the definition of waste food itself is problematic - is waste food, food we could eat, but don't (rejected at farms etc); food that was intended to be eaten, but wasn't (supermarket refuse); or food should have been eaten, but is now inedible (bad meat etc). This is the crux of the waste food issue: it is the other side of the modern food coin.

The way we eat food now is built on - requires - large amounts of wasted food. It is not wasted in the sense that this is exactly how the supply chain is expected and intended to work. To talk about the waste and not talk about the system that is underpinned by it is wishful thinking. To change food wastage will necessitate overhauling the entire modern conception of mass market-based eating. I'm not saying we couldn't or shouldn't do that, but we should go into it clear-eyed.
posted by smoke at 6:49 PM on May 11, 2011 [10 favorites]


this smacks to me of "we shouldn't have ice cream at the Second Harvest because people will eat it for dinner and ignore the good, fresh vegetables that would actually do them some long-term good."

I don't want to put words in his mouth, but ... so what if he did?

Let's consider if "ice cream" was replaced with, say, ampules of heroin, or maybe free cigarettes. I think more people might agree that it'd be a bit wrong to do that; there's an understanding that if you present a lot of people, over and over, with a choice between heroin and food, a significant number of them might choose the heroin and not the food, and do so enough times that it'd be to their obvious detriment. And so that would be a pretty shitty thing to do.

There's a suspiciously mounting body of evidence that while ice cream may not be as obviously physically addictive as heroin, we're hard wired to seek out the high-sugar, high-fat rush, and a very large percentage of people, when given the choice between ice cream and other food, will just go for the ice cream, even to their obvious detriment on a long enough timescale.

And while I'm not suggesting that ice cream be made illegal (since I'd be the first one down at the Baskin-Robbins speakeasy), I'm not sure why it's just bluntly assumed that everyone can handle and make the responsible long-term choice when presented with a cunningly engineered, high-sugar / high-fat product, that's designed to tweak the body's pleasure receptors. From a casual look at American society, I'd say it's pretty obvious this isn't the case.

Granted there's a parentalism / individual-agency issue, and if someone wants to go out and buy a half-gallon of Chunky Monkey and hoover it down every day, I'd say they have the same right to do that as someone who goes out and buys a fifth of Wild Turkey or an 8-ball for 'dinner'. (And I'd go further and say that someone who wants to shoot themselves in the head also has the right to, as a limiting case.) But that sort of permissiveness -- which I think is a necessity in a free society that respects individuals' self-determination -- doesn't mean that we need to go out of our way to make good decisions that much harder, by dangling the baited hook of substances that prey on our reptile brains at every opportunity.

tl;dr: engineered food is a hell of a drug.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:58 PM on May 11, 2011 [2 favorites]


And I should point out that I was using 'ice cream' largely as a shorthand for 'engineered / processed food designed for taste, instantaneous satisfaction, and repeat sales at the expense of everything else.' I'm not sure that ice cream is even the most glaring example of that (looking at you, Chicken McNuggets). Ice cream, at least, gives you a headache if you eat too much of it too fast. That's an obvious flaw if you're trying to build a Perfect Food Product.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:03 PM on May 11, 2011


I don't understand how a individual could end up with more than a pint of (pulverized) food waste a day. Why would you routinely make an excess of food? Once in a while, yes, there's bound to be a high volume of food waste. But if it's every day then you've got a problem with common sense.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:16 PM on May 11, 2011


Actually, Kadin2048, while you've articulated it better, that was kind of what I was thinking too. I didn't mean that dhartung was wrong, I was genuinely curious as to what he meant by that, as I wasn't sure if he meant "take the ice cream off the table cuzx OMG fatties" or "have more ice cream because that's what the clients want." I wasn't trying to tear him a new one, I was just not entirely clear on what he was trying to get across.

The messed up, tragic part of his post (and yours) is that I DON'T KNOW, and I don't think ANYONE really can know, what exactly would be the best public policy measure given the situation that you and he both describe (and that I've read about, as would, I would guess, a fair amount of the mefites who would click on this link in the first place). I certainly wasn't just all "GIVE EM THE FATZ AND LET EM DIE," in fact, I am deeply divided over this. I've now typed and deleted roughly four million different responses, most (but not all) of them variations on "hey, choose."

I will, however, quote this for truth and profundity: "But that sort of permissiveness -- which I think is a necessity in a free society that respects individuals' self-determination -- doesn't mean that we need to go out of our way to make good decisions that much harder, by dangling the baited hook of substances that prey on our reptile brains at every opportunity."

That was really well-said, and pretty much sums up the question. Question being, where does the line get drawn? At heroin or Chicken Nuggets or dressing on a salad?
posted by deep thought sunstar at 8:37 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


My town's landfill has a recycling centre, sorts its fill, runs a chipping program in the spring, promotes composting by sponsoring barrel sales, and there's a big composting facility for commercial-quantity food waste. We also have a nifty sewage plant that ultimately provides wastewater recycling used in cattle forage areas and on a world-class golf course. No black or greywater sewage goes directly into our lakes or rivers.

I am shocked that my backwater, conservative, overly religious, small, frequently mismanaged town is ahead of the curve. Way ahead? Doesn't everyone recycle?
posted by five fresh fish at 8:40 PM on May 11, 2011


deep thought, I appreciate what a problem you had with my phrasing, but I was just making an observation -- an observation that would be unremarkable if said about normal supermarket demographics. As a society we all are filling up on ice cream and ignoring broccoli, and we have the BMIs and the chronic diseases to prove it. Junk food and fast food are the markers of Western civilization in many ways. But when you couple it with charity suddenly there are these nefarious judgements necessary, as if it's no use to give people food or many gradations of judgemental review. (We had a series on poverty in the local paper and the comments were full of things like "I saw someone buying A CAKE with their food stamps", as if there were some rule against that.) That wasn't what I was trying to say at all.

In fact, at the last of these Second Harvest events, there was a gal from the local university extension office with literature on healthy eating and handing out snacks (because the way this is organized, there's a huge crowd stuck in a hall waiting forever for their turn) of celery and refried beans (the theme was Hispanic recipes). Few partook. And sadly, many of the people you see in line could probably use a significantly healthier diet.

But I've written before about Maslow's hierarchy of needs here. People don't worry about things like nutrition when they're consumed with other priorities like keeping their housing voucher or whatever. It's an uphill battle. What has happened has been a revolution in food distribution that has made all sorts of unhealthy things like ice cream incredibly easy to get and a marketing matrix around that that frames a juicy, fat-infused burger as an emotional reward. The corner markets where everyone used to get their daily fresh vegetables have vanished, replaced by reward pellet machines with colorful brand names. In many ways it's insane.
posted by dhartung at 11:08 PM on May 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


We don't waste 95-115 kg of food every year in this house, and that's because I carry it all in. If we didn't use the food then I'd be lugging a heavy backpack to and from the grocery store two or three times a week for nothing, and that's not going to happen. A lot of wastage may be a consequence of the fossil fuels that make it so easy for people to pop down the store and pick up something to eat.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:04 AM on May 12, 2011


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