Ag at large: Wasted food an issue as population increases

By Don Curlee

Food producers for the most part have felt that those who buy their products can eat them, throw them away, throw them at somebody or let them rot. As the world’s population increases they are adopting a more conservative attitude.

Since 75 million people are added to the world’s population every year, which is expected to result in 9.7 billion people occupying the planet by 2050, futurists foresee a need to increase overall food production by 70 percent. Cutting back the huge amount of food that is wasted can be a major means of filling the gap.

While much attention is focused on the need for additional land and water for increased food production and new technologies in several food producing areas, the reduction of waste requires not so much new as application of the old principle of waste not, want not.

Sonia Salas, Director of Science & Technology at Western Growers in Newport Beach, wrote about the subject in the most recent issue of the organization’s monthly magazine WG&S, an acronym for Western Grower and Shipper. The organization represents major producers and shippers of a long list of fruits and vegetables located in three western states.

She said 40 percent of all the food produced in the United States each year is wasted. According to the National Resources Defense Council that, is about 20 pounds per person, worth $165 million. It represents a huge squandering of labor, water, energy, land and other inputs that were invested in its production as well as a gigantic release of methane as it rots in landfills.

She points out that a considerable percentage of food waste occurs because of tight regulations imposed by government and consumers, and even quality standards maintained by growers and producers. These affect the amount of product grown, but not harvested as well as finished product that never makes it to the marketplace, mostly because of bad appearance or condition. The amount of fresh food products that are incorporated back into the soil because of condition issues and market turnarounds is astounding.

It is important to note that it is not just perishables that we’re talking about, though that is what comes to mind first. But packaged food products, those that are dried, canned, frozen or otherwise preserved are subject to waste too. They are often packed away at home or in storage with the assumption they will be edible forever.

Sometimes it almost seems that they are. In our household some rations we considered emergency status were unpacked after 50 years. Other than a depth of oil on top, the can of peanut butter could have been mistaken for yesterday’s purchase. Tasted like you expect peanut butter to taste too.

A bright spot that makes the widespread habit of waste almost acceptable is the use of less than marketable food to community food pantries and other give-away services where it can be accessed by low income or other citizens in need. Some federal and state regulations have been relaxed recently to allow broader distribution of “ugly” food items.

Salas reported that large grocer chain Giant Eagle has just started selling “produce with personality,” some of it with defects, blemishes, dents or scrapes that keep it out of the premium displays.

The Western Growers executive dared to touch briefly on one of the most noticeable of all causes of food waste in America: bulging, overfed waistlines. Her organization’s members continue to supply a wide selection of healthy fresh fruits and vegetables that help trim waists. But they haven’t found the way to produce will power. We can only hope.