The World’s Most Stupid & Solvable Problem
Food Waste Is A Problem With Agriculture & The Food Industry
The food industry is a giant inefficiency of waste. One/third of all food produced in the entire world… ends up rotting in a bin.
Not only is this a crying travesty in its own right but whats sad is that the food rotting in your bin is really only the tip of the waste. Agriculture and crop production are the most taxing industries on our environment.
The complexity of this problem is as such. We have a trivially limited supply of land, water, topsoil, plus the rest of the components necessary for agriculture. This is met by a bloated demand for soy, wheat, corn, cows, fish, chicken, plus the rest of the crops we consume. The demand/supply interchange between these two forces is failing to appropriately find a healthy equilibrium. Externalities are not being appropriately priced and we have as consequence, somehow found ourselves in such an embarrassing predicament that we simultaneously produce more food than we need and yet have almost a billion people going hungry every day.
Oh, and by the way, just to top it off… we then throw away 1/3rd of it.
The Worst Inefficiency
33% of everything we produce never gets digested. With 1/3rd of the food produced we could feed the near a billion hungry people the world over… several times.
And with the obvious opportunity cost being the mouths that the wasted food could have otherwise fed, I’m afraid even this isn’t the worst part of it. In a world endlessly shouting about global warming, why do we always fail to mention the pink elephant in the room? The huge costs to the environment that are being left by the wayside.
Pollution, from rotting tips to leaking antibiotics. CO2 emissions, from production and storage to transportation. And water usage, an inexcusable waste, are all decimating, perhaps beyond repair, the very planet we live on.
Big, Stupid, Numbers
I think corner to this issue is the problem of big numbers. We run away so readily from big, scary numbers because the scale of them is so intimidating that we convince ourselves nothing can be done of it.
The Food Waste Manifesto is littered with big numbers. Big, stupid numbers. Billions and trillions of the same things you and me consume by the dozen. Much like climate change, you cannot make a difference by simply removing your phone charger from the wall.
The Difference Between Food Waste & Climate Change
Food Waste is a solvable problem because it simply requires a realignment of the incentives. It is in this measure much different to climate change because the core of the climate change issue is not a question of incentives but rather of economics, it is still a price issue between energy solutions. At this point, it just costs more to harness the wind than it does to burn coal.
Food Waste is much different. Agriculture producers around the world and getting more and more efficient with less and less resources. They are moving in the right direction. It is us, the consumers who need to facilitate the requisite incentive change.
Food standards are dictated by the consumer and the legislative. The Food Waste problem is slapping us back and forth across the face with solutions. It is the overstated complexity of the problem that makes this the most stupid BIG problem the world faces.
It’s all incentives. Change the incentives, and you’ll change the problem.
The Energy Waste
If you had to guess… what would you say the percentage of the worlds water supply is both accessible and fresh? 75%, 30%… 10%…?
No – 1%
Of all the water on our little blue planet, only 1% of it is both accessible and fresh. We are a ballooning population whose needs are only going in one direction… and we all need water.
Here is the real kicker, of this 1% access to water we boast, how much of it would you estimate we syphon off for the purposes of agriculture? I won’t sweat you this time… 69%
So let’s get this straight. Water is the most important natural resource for human life. We have access to 1%. Earth is big, I guess 1% is alright, but once 69% is deducted we are only left with 0.31% for us. OK, 0.31% doesn’t sound like much, but the Earth is big right? Well, yes it is but as it stands 0.31% isn’t good enough to ensure water for all. Much of the world’s population only have access to drinking water because of plastic bottles. As much as 1,000,000 plastic bottles per minute are consumed across the globe with the majority of those housing water.
Now, since 1/3rd of all food produced ends up in waste can we thus deduce that 1/3rd of the 69% freshwater used for agriculture goes to waste as well? No, not precisely since much of the water used along the supply chain for cleaning, transporting is essentially a sunk cost but for the sake of whole numbers 1/3rd of 69% is 23%.
Essentially 1/3rd of all consumable water that is leftover goes to complete waste. This is a world where water insecurity is becoming more and more of a geopolitical issue… and geopolitical issues are the catalyst foundation for seemingly all other issues. The waste of all this alone makes it the world’s stupidest problem, and that’s before you address the land loss, the hunger, the emissions and the pollution of it all.
Water Numbers For Agriculture
Supposedly, a single chicken egg is worth 185 litres of water, the equivalent of three showers. A KG of beef is worth more than 15,000 litres of water, the equivalent of >300 showers. It makes me feel a bit differently about my experience with water restrictions growing up in Australia. I remember mum stressing over me taking a shower longer than a minute, when the whole time, cattle farmers around Australia were taking the equivalent showers in the millions all for meat, 1/3rd of which was going to end up in someone’s bin.
What kind of inefficiency in a system allows this?
The water potential of all the 1/3rd food wasted is equivalent to 250,000,000,000,000 (trillion) litres of water per annum. This amount of fresh and accessible water is sufficient to hydrate our 7,000,000,000 (billion) population for 30 years… and yet, we have water security all over the globe.
Incentives need to be realigned.
Energy & Emissions From Agriculture
Food and agricultural production use as much as 30% of the total energy we consume. Since 1/3rd of the food produced goes to waste, we can assume that 10% of all energy we consume as a species is going absolutely straight into the landfill… further perpetuating methane.
This translates quite transparently into CO2 emissions. Not only is the 10% wasted energy not going to fuel some fulfilling endeavour but rather it is creating further waste by spewing into the atmosphere the very gas governments around the world are spending billions of dollars and euros to remove.
We all know beef, cows and animals to be the major CO2 culprits when it comes to energy usage, but did you know that >600,000 transatlantic flights equivalent of CO2 emissions are produced by the wasted cereals alone! Not the consumed cereals… the wasted. Even simple grains, at scale, require (big stupid numbers) amounts of energy.
Methane is as memed a gas as there has ever been, but given its 25x potency over CO2, the 21% of landfills that are compiled of rotting, wasted food matters.
It is natural that food production should occupy a significant percentage of our landmass. The issue of more or less landmass is one of efficiency, not food waste. Much of the trouble connecting land usage to food waste derives from exploited land whose purpose it is to become the food for our food. In other words, the cereals we grow to feed the animals we eat.
There is such a wasted inefficiency to this process because the grain we feed our animals is of a significantly lower standard (though not all the time) than the grain we feed humans. And such, the only goal for these crop producers is securing the lowest cost possible. Unfortunately, this drives producers to areas they can exploit, such as Brazil or other developing nations where incentives are such that syphoning off a bit of the rainforest to decimate the soil for a few years of great crop yields are rewarded rather than punished.
A question of incentives.
Food production occupies 34% of all our land. Crucially, it is agriculture that is responsible for as much as 75% of the world’s deforestation as well.
Land Usage & Food Waste
Like I started off with, I am iffy and in two minds about being critical of land usage with crop production. I believe the less we concentrate food production the higher quality yield we will reap, however, it is in the waste that this problem becomes so depressing.
As much as 2,600,000 football fields worth of trees (big stupid numbers) are cleared each year for the purposes of crop growth that never ends up in someones belly, except maybe a seagull as he rummages through our trash.
This is an inexcusable waste. If we are to tax our Earth so severely, we bloody may as well make the most of it. And instead what we are served is antibiotic infused, soggy, sad and cheap meat which we then lather in sugary sauce and potatoes only to throw away 1/3rd of it because we had the exact same meal for lunch.
If we are to tax our Earth so severely, why do we not at least try and measure up a product worthwhile?
Incentives, incentives, incentives. Price in the negative externalities of agriculture and watch the price change in accordance. Re-incentivise everyone along the supply chain from the soy producer, to the dairy farmer, to you and me, the consumer.
Agricultures Effect On Wildlife
I am reminded of Bill Bryson’s line “99.9% of all species that have ever existed are extinct”
Extinction is normal and natural in accordance with Earth’s laws. If an apex predator draws an animal away from its natural habitat and condemns its species to a slow intergenerational death than so be it. It is the natural way of things. But how can we think about this differently when it is humans who are the apex predator responsible for the displacement?
I do not know, should we think differently about it? I instinctually insist that as the species responsible we should do everything we can to mitigate it, but I am also cognisent of what it would cost.
Such is the complexity of our planet and it’s ecosystems. There is invariably always going to be an unmeasured cost to any action we take. Our best of intentions could wipe out the blue whale. We cannot be certain about our behaviour when we mess with the Earth’s delicate and complex ecosystems.
What we know for sure is that chopping down forests for the production of food that ends up in a bin is PURE & INEXCUSABLE WASTE. Tapping our water supplies, and threatening the extinction of animal species because of overconsumption is INEXCPLICABLY STUPID. As humans, we must be able to react when things do not go according to plan. We are still fishing in areas we were warned long ago dangerously overfished. We are still farming topsoil we were warned long ago was well past its regenerative ability. We are still clearing forest’s that we have seen long ago, was displacing and disrupting the natural ecosystem. Yet, we have continued along these destructive paths nonetheless.
Again, the problem of food waste is a question of incentives. How can it be so that the incentives currently reward short term gain over long term extinction. We need a return to a sustainable equilibrium in our food production.
The wildlife must be considered. If they are to become extinct, let natural causes be left to blame. We have enough arable land in the world that we need not drain our rivers and chop down our trees to grow more cheap, disgusting soy.
Our Animals Are Dieing Too Fast
With all this being said, in the last 50 years, wildlife populations including reptiles, mammals, birds and fish have all decreased in size by as much as 60%.
60%. We have tipped nature off balance.
For a 60% reduction to have occurred in a time span that is but a second in the day according to history is wholly unnatural. Our food production functions are coming at the cost of every other major animal group.
And the worst part… we throw away 1/3rd of the very food that is destroying our ecosystems.
Everything we do is reliant upon a functioning equilibrium of our delicate natural ecosystems. Humans have to make an enormous effort to even barely knock nature off course. Healthy wildlife populations do so much more for the environment than what looks might perceive. Animals pollinate plants, improve soil quality, and become the catalyst of innumerable 2nd, 3rd, 4th and so on order effects. These ecosystems are complex beyond our comprehension.
A 10% loss in wildlife populations might be sustainable and within the band of elasticity of equilibrium, but 60%…? Please, to argue anything else is an incriminating lie.
There is a tipping point where the road back home looks entirely different to tracing back the path you took. It might well be the case we are already there. And the worst part, despite all of this… we throw away 1/3rd of the food produced because of it.
The Food Waste
At The Farm
Different to every other leg if the food waste journey, food lost at the farm is purely levelled at economics.
The agriculture industry is very complicated, but in short, farmers crops are typically purchased seasons in advance. Prices are lower when bought in the future, however they are also then safer because it hedges a farmer against terrible weather or a significant drop in demand which they are completely fragile too. For this reason, a significant amount of food is wasted at this stage. If you were not so lucky or perhaps you like the risk of higher prices, you might decide to sell at harvest (when ready) rather than seasons in advance.
Selling at harvest can either yield you the best price you could have possibly gotten, or in some cases, nothing at all. Let me elucidate this point through an example.
Latin Food In Stockholm
I live in Stockholm, so essentially all of the food I eat is imported from one country or another. Say for example our primary avocado importer, Mexico, experiences a terrible storm that wipes out their harvest for this year. They made the conservative decision and contracted this harvest seasons in advance, so while they actually sold nothing, they were paid nonetheless. But now in Stockholm, we don’t have any avocados… something I and my fellow Swedes desperately want to cook with. We might turn our attention south of Mexico to Guatemala. Turns out there are some avocado farmers there who, for whatever reason (political instability, higher quality, lower risk of crop failure, poor storage infrastructure), did not sell their crop in advance. Therefore they are selling at harvest! Well, this is brilliant news for these farmers because they know their northern neighbours have had a tumultuous year. And such, these Guatemalan farmers will garner a price significantly higher than their Mexican comrades for their avocados. Stockholm importers buy the Guatemalan avocadoes at harvest and vwhalla!
However, what if things were the other way around. Which these days they more often are. Rather than Mexico underperforming on their crop performance due to bad weather, they instead meet their expectations precisely and deliver according to expectations. Well, now when these same Guatalaman farmers who before were getting paid so well, this time they are barely going to be paid anything. In fact, the price of their avocados is so low that the cost alone to harvest and transport exceed their commercial value. Therefore making $0 for a year’s work.
This is the first step of the most egregious instances of food waste. Tons of avocados in this example are simply going to be dumped. Perfectly fine to eat crops that required enormous energy and water inputs are going to be simply dumped to rot and erode rather than eaten and enjoyed.
During 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic, restaurants and food producers saw a drop off a cliff in demand overnight. This constraint was felt all the way back to the begging of the supply chain to the very food’s they would have otherwise been cooking with. Thousands of tons of potatoes were dumped. Pure waste. Thousands of tons. Big, stupid numbers.
And the travesty of it all is simply that it is a case of economics. And such is the case of economics, rather than there being a solution that does not exist, there has simply been a solution yet to be found. There should always be demand that exceeds the costs of excess crops.
It might run contrary to what the university theory will tell you, but this is the point I am trying to hammer home. Question the incentives. Food waste is such an egregious abuse of the environment that market forces alone should not dictate the destiny of agriculture with the same disinterest as it might, clothing for example. Some industries are more important than others.
Handsome Food V. Ugly Food (Do You Really Give A Shit?)
Another wasteful practice that is commonplace on farms the world over is one of vanity. There is, understandably, food standards that crops must adhere too for them to be bought and then resold further down the line to you and me. However, there is also, perplexingly, vanity standards and metrics that the food we eat must live up to as well. The potato can only have so few blemishes, the carrot has to be long, thick and straight, the banana must have a curve just so, the capsicum must be one true colour.
Agriculture producers will allow for up to 10% yield loss on any given harvest based on vanity metrics alone! Isn’t this insane? The nutritional value and quality of the food are precisely the same it just looks a little funky. I am all for promoting aesthetics, but when it comes to a problem as stupid as food waste, it’s all just a bit ridiculous.
This is a problem of economics as well because the next seller down the line, the supermarkets, have it in their heads that they can’t sell ‘ugly’ food for it will surely drive their customers away to their competitor who only sells ‘pretty’ food.
I think this is a huge opportunity for supermarkets to both make a difference and maximise their bottom line. Give people the option and let their wallets decide.
At The Supermarket
In between growing the food and then transporting the food, we will lose 14% of all the food produced. This is because of poor storage infrastructure and failures in logistics. But it is in the final consumption. The supermarket, the home and the restaurant were the real damage is done. This damage done here is the most egregious. The most egregious because it is also the laziest, the least creative and the easiest to get away with.
Supermarkets are in cut-throat competition. This is evidently clear. They need to entice you to shop there and not anywhere else. My local supermarket is what they call in Sweden an ICA Maxi. I am living in a bit of a posh district, so the particular ICA Maxi next to me has a bit of a reputation. It is the best grocery store I have ever shopped at. They stock absolutely everything you could ever want and all the produce is, seemingly at least, of a very high standard.
It is large. The logistics for running this sort of operation I do not envy. Tons of perishable food, loads of choices, a very picky consumer.
ICA Maxi is hamstrung by a ton of Swedish regulation that ensures no product is EVER sold that is close to going off. The restrictions for giving food away, or selling at a steep discount within a tight band of the use-by date are very strict. And so you will routinely have say a ton or more of food, perfectly edible, consumable food just dumped out the back straight into the waste truck.
Remember what I said at the begging… it’s all incentives.
ICA would love nothing more than to have the liberty to sell everything they buy! It must hurt them so, every-time they dump perfectly edible food out the back. YES, people will get sick. Some people will get sick when they purchase food that is too close to the use by date, let it sit in the fridge, and then cook it a week alter. This will undoubtedly happen!
But take individual responsibility for the food you buy! If you are properly informed of the risk of eating certain foods and decide to eat them nonetheless what kind of society do we live in where you can then blame the person who sold it to you for it?
Almost 1/3rd of all food thrown away is precisely because of this horrible incentive. The transfer of risk from yourself onto someone else. It is a despicable act and one which we all freely participate in every day.
Incentivise the grocery store to sell ugly and blemished food. Get the consumer incentivised to purchase the almost bad, ugly food. Shift incentives away from throwing food away and towards consuming it at all costs!
At The Restaurant
Restaurants operate similarly to the grocery stores, just with lower volumes and much more complicated logistics.
They have to predict how many people are coming into the restaurant, what they are going to eat, balance the difficulty of serving them exactly as much as they want and make it taste good!
Buffets and larger spreads are the worst. They will inevitably throw away at least 1/3rd of all the final food prepared for these occasions. Restaurants routinely over order certain foods, and since a restaurant has the incentive for freshness and quality, the ingredients and food they order typically have shorter shelf lives.
BTW – this is the magic of a chef and a good restaurant. Most bums can make a tasty meal, but only a chef can coordinate 100 meals with variety, not waste food, order precisely right AND turn out taste and satisfaction on every plate. It is truly awesome.
There is also a cultural acceptance within hospitality that throwing away loads of food is simply a ‘cost of doing business’. Chefs and operators are unsensitised to the image of a plate of food being swept into the bin. This is something that needs to change! There should be a tax on food wasted. Again, it is all about incentives. This would make a chefs life harder, but, at the cost of not senselessly wasting prepared food, I think it is a worthwhile cost.
My Experience Throwing Away 100’s Of KG Of Food
I worked at a company called Fresh Catering in Sydney for many years when I was in my early 20’s (it was my favourite job ever). We would routinely cater dinners for say, 150 people or more. We might have a fish/meat alternative drop on an evening, so 75 prepared fish and 75 prepared beef.
Without fail! at least 25% of all dishes wouldn’t even be touched and the majority were not finished. The kitchen would prepare more than they needed (just to be careful) despite never once needed them. I would throw away between 20-100kg of food every single time I operated a dinner like this, and I would work 4-5 of them per week, and the company operate at least 50 per week. Tons of high quality, expensive food would be senselessly wasted. All because of bad incentives.
It is the most disgusting by-product of hospitality.
People throw away food without shame. We should feel a terrible guilt every-time we participate in food waste.
At The Home
The last frontier.
Last night I ate some delicious chicken wings served with sweet potato fries and guacamole. Chicken has a short shelf life, they were Swedish chickens. Avocados have a short shelf life, they were Mexican. The spices can keep for a long time, they are from everywhere. The onions and butter and oil also keep for a long time, they are from Sweden mostly.
I cooked way too much. By the end I was stuffing my face just to make sure I didn’t throw any away.
My mother drilled into me the notion of always cleaning the plate off in front of you. I know that had most other people been eating, take my brother in law for example. He would have easily stopped halfway, been full from the meal, and without guilt thrown away the other half. I am afraid that this is the default setting in most homes. We forget how much the food cost, the effort we put into preparing it, the people around the world hungry… and we just chuck it away.
We are at home, we like to cook. We usually cook too much. This is the universal case. Leftovers are usually sloppy and under-utilised.
It is because of our bloated living standards that we can afford to buy way more food than we need. We cannot blame anyone else when it comes to the home. You must take responsibility for the food you buy and if you find yourself consistently throwing away food. Buy less.
Waste Per Industry – (Links To Articles Coming Soon…)
- Beef, Cows & Cattle
- Fish & The Oceans
- Chickens & Eggs
- Pork & Pigs
- Grain, Soy, Cereal – Our Foods Food
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