Waste Not, Want Not? Food Waste and the Problem of Global Hunger

Picture, for a moment, the iconic, Rockwellian Thanksgiving spread. Then pause to envision the aftermath: the entirely uniconic scraping of uneaten food into the garbage disposal.

To feed a growing world, according to a popular argument, we don't need more food -- we just need to do a better job with the food we have. We need to waste less, and we need to do a better job distributing it to hungry people around the world.

It makes the problem of providing global security sound easier to solve. It also appeals to everyone's sense of virtue.

But is it true?

Food waste is clearly an enormous, complex problem. In the developing world, where a better word for the problem is really "loss," it's estimated that one third of farmers' production by weight is spoiled or eaten by vermin before it ever reaches the market. Poor roads, packaging, storage, and related technological and logistical problems are responsible.

And in our own country, where "waste" is indeed the more precise term, a similar percentage is discarded, mostly after having been marketed. That's because of incorrect portion sizes, aesthetic concerns, and other issues, largely of a cultural nature.

Food distribution is a major global problem too. As many observers note, farmers worldwide produce enough calories per capita to feed everyone adequately. But that, of course, is only if those calories were distributed equitably. They aren't, so we have about 800-900 million chronically undernourished people in this world, most of them in Africa and Asia. And as fate would have it, most of the 2.5 billion more people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050 are going to live in the very same countries.

Given the gravity of these problems, we clearly need to understand them better and tackle them more aggressively. To do our part, we've asked some of the most distinguished scientists at our company to examine them and give us a better handle on possible solutions. In 2007, a similar examination by this group led us to understand that climate change was already affecting agriculture and to begin taking immediate coping steps.

As we all deal with these problems, however, it's important to see them in their proper context. We need to understand that tackling them alone won't solve world hunger. We also need to produce more food.

Here's why:

First, increased population and increased prosperity in some parts of the world are going to double global food demand by 2050. Less waste and better distribution could help us get part of the way to meeting this demand, but only part. Estimates are that cutting food waste in half - which is a lot - would only take care of at most 20 percent of the so-called "food gap." And a dramatic shift toward more equitable food distribution is simply not reasonable to expect, as I'll discuss in a moment.

Second, hunger and poverty are inter-related and are best solved together through increased food production by the same people who suffer from them.

Let me unpack that. As I noted, hunger is concentrated in the developing world, and within the developing world, it's most common in rural areas, where too many smallholder farmers lack the money to buy enough food for themselves and their families. These people find themselves in generational poverty traps. More robust harvests provided by better agricultural methods and technologies - growing more and losing less of what they grow - offer them a way out. With more food to sell, these people can earn the money needed not only to feed their families but also to send their kids to school, where they can get the education needed to achieve greater prosperity.

We're already seeing this happening in portions of India and Africa. We just need to see a lot more of it.

Third and finally, as ambitious as this goal of transforming the lives of smallholder farmers may be, it is far more realistic than the goal of radically redistributing food. Human history is replete with wars fought over precious resources. How practical is it, therefore, to expect humanity to undertake a massive and sustained program of sharing the very food that sustains us?

So here's where I net out: Yes, I absolutely support efforts to reduce food loss and waste as well as to better distribute the food we have. And I'm looking forward to our scientists' ideas about how we can contribute to solutions to these challenges.

But I also want to be realistic. The challenge before us is daunting. To solve it, we need to use every tool in our toolbox. That means we also need to figure out ways to get more food out of an acre of farmland in a sustainable way.

Conserve more, absolutely. Distribute better, sure. But we must produce more too.