A study done for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, released a week ago, finds that nearly one-third of the world’s food supply — in the United States the figure is 40 per cent — is never consumed because it is wasted. Billions are being spent to develop new chemicals, new genetically altered seeds and new, energy-intensive, unsustainable farming methods that are alleged to increase food production, but the authors of the study expressed surprise that the loss of food, much of which is deliberately thrown away, is drawing no attention.
[Hint: If you want to make a lot of money quickly, do you a) invent a new chemical and claim it can save the world, or b) encourage thrift? Any questions?]
As released, the study (Global Food Losses and Food Waste) actually combines two surveys, one done in the developing countries and one in the industrialized nations. In the developing world, much of the loss of food is connected to lack of money, knowledge and infrastructure for the transportation and preservation of food. It is in the industrialized world where the fate of 40 per cent of the food produced throws new and harsh light on the consequences of industrializing food.
Decades of producing food to the standards of industry have, it turns out, not only debased the food we consume but led to the destruction of 40 per cent of the food that has been prepared for our consumption. Consider the implications:
- Fast-food-restaurant chains will not accept potatoes that are not insanely uniform, sized to maximize the number of appropriately sized french fries yielded by each spud. Others are rejected, often to be thrown out.
- These chains also discard burgers that have been in the warming tray for a certain number of minutes. Estimates are that ten per cent of all hamburgers that are flipped, get flipped into the dumpster, so if the chain boasts of a billion served, that means a hundred million thrown away.
- Grocery stores reject fruit and vegetables that have minor defects or variations in color that have no effect on nutrition or safety. This has driven the food “industry” to deploy genetic engineering and chemistry to make the food look perfect, at the expense of its flavor and nutritional content.
From such examples it is hard to decide which is worse: the problem of waste, or the lengths to which industry is going to try to prevent the kind of waste that affects its bottom line.
But another — and major — component of the wasting of 40 per cent of America’s food (and that of other, similarly “advanced” countries) is the ubiquitous and misleading “sell-by” or “best-if-used-by” date. If words still have a common meaning, and if logic still serves, a label that tells the store to sell a product by a certain date makes no statement about the quality of the food after that date. “Best-if-used-by” does not mean, nor even imply, that the item will be “poisonous-if-used-after.”
But the industrial consumer has not been encouraged to consider the actual meaning of words, nor to employ logic, and the result is that she regards the date on the package as an expiration date, with the result that nearly half of the food loss in industrialized countries occurs at the retail and consumer levels. Meaning that this perfectly edible food is deliberately discarded. The study found that “Food waste at consumer level in industrialized countries (222 million ton) is almost as high as the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa (230 million ton).”
It is worth noting that while industry is straining mightily to deal with food losses that affect its bottom line, that is, food rejected at the retail level, it is utterly uninterested in the food waste that occurs after sale, because, well, why would they be? The consumer that throws out a pork chop that has “expired” will be back in the store later today to buy another pork chop.
A world that is seeing unprecedented increases in food prices and shortages of food can ill afford to lose a third of its available food to stupidity. And beyond that, as the study also points out, a world that is entering the throes of peak oil — that will soon be experiencing excruciating shortages of both fuel and the myriad products that require oil as a raw material or energy source — can ill afford the loss of all the synthetic fertilizer, petro-chemicals and fuel that is being thrown away on food that gets thrown away.
It’s just another way in which the core values of industrialization — uniformity, scale and profitability — cannot be reconciled with the values of the natural world — diversity, variety, and interconnectedness. Just another way of saying that if it’s industrial, it is not sustainable.