Hungering for a Solution to Food Losses

January 4, 2013

Between Thanksgiving and the New Year, you and I and everyone we know will waste about five million tons of food—enough to fill 125,000 18-wheelers, which would stretch from Chicago to Seattle. In one year, Americans alone waste about 34 million tons. That's a lot of turkey, pie and Christmas cookies ending up in the trash—instead of in our stomachs.

While that might seem good for our waistlines, throwing away food actually has a big impact on the environment and food security.

One of the biggest myths about the food system is that we don't produce enough to feed the world—and that food scarcity is the reason why nearly one billion across the planet are hungry. In fact, we produce enough calories to feed every man, woman and child—and that's on top of wasting roughly 1.3 billion tons of food each year world-wide.

One-third of all food in industrialized countries gets thrown away, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. In developing countries, the problems of poor transportation, lack of storage facilities, mold, pests and bad roads result in 40% of crops being lost. The FAO says that the 1.3 billion tons of food that is wasted would be enough to feed the 868 million people who go to bed hungry each night.

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, where more than 265 million people are hungry, farmers are in a battle against post-harvest losses caused by flooding and drought, fungus and mold, or inadequate storage. Annual post-harvest losses for grains, tubers, fruits and vegetables, and meat and milk amount to roughly 100 million tons each year, the FAO reported.

Food waste tends to be pervasive across the food chain: some loss in the field, some loss in storage, some loss in transport—and then wasted at retailers, restaurants and finally by us, at home. In the United States, consumers throw away about one and a half pounds per person daily, the Environmental Protection Agency says. The cost of this waste isn't just to our wallets. As food waste decomposes in landfills it releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas with 26 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.

There are ways to prevent waste—and hunger—in both developing and industrialized countries alike. Many of the strategies throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America are simple, and often inexpensive, innovations. In Gambia and India, for example, solar-powered dehydrators are used to dry papayas and mangos, reducing fruit going to waste at the peak of the season and providing a great source of vitamin A throughout the year. In Bolivia, farmers are using driers to preserve a number of different crops, such as tomatoes and potatoes, throughout the year.

In Africa, hermetically sealed bags—essentially really big Ziploc bags—protect crops from moisture, insects and fungus. Researchers from Purdue University are working with farmers to protect cow peas, a legume crop that is high in protein, and to help distribute the bags across Niger, Nigeria, Mali and beyond. This technology has the potential to save farmers in the region around $44 million annually.

In Pakistan, the U.N. has helped farmers reduce grain-storage losses by up to 70% just by replacing jute storage bags and mud silos with metal grain-storage containers that protect against moisture and prevent insects and rats from eating grain.

In this country, the California Association of Food Banks launched a "Farm to Family" initiative in 2006 to collect produce from growers and packers in the state that would have gone to waste. By 2011, the program was distributing more than 120 million pounds of 38 different fruits and vegetables across the state. Author Tristram Stuart's Feeding the 5,000 project is showing consumers in the United Kingdom—and soon in sub-Saharan Africa—how to use what Mr. Stuart calls "wonky" (or irregularly shaped or imperfect) fruits, vegetables and other crops to create delicious meals.

So as you dig into your meals this holiday season, think about not piling those potatoes so high and about composting those scraps. And remember the abundance of food is all around us.

Ms. Lappé is the author of "Diet for a Hot Planet" (Bloomsbury USA, 2010) and founder of the Real Food Media Project. Ms. Nierenberg is the co-president of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank

How is your donation spent?

90% of all contributions to Corporate Accountability International are spent directly on programs, while 10% provide essential support services resulting in the highest marks from rating agencies. 

Donate Now

Charity Navigator: Four Star Charity

We are accredited with Charity Navigator’s highest rating—4 stars.

BBB: Accredited Charity

We meet all 20 BBB Charity Standards.