Martha Roberts, University of Florida
Martha Roberts, University of Florida

Traditional or “mainstream” agriculture has been trying to foster a responsible solution to producing enough food to feed 9 billion people in 2050 using fewer natural resources.

Today, one billion people in the world don’t have enough food, while another one billion people arguably have more than they need for good health. This mismatch is framed by many as a moral and ethical issue.

However, according to recent Food Foresight trend reports, there’s some compassion fatigue on the global hunger front.

This is especially true in times of stagnant wages and economic insecurity. People ask, “What’s in it for me? I’m less interested in feeding the world than I am about feeding my family, my community, my country.”

Counter arguments to the position of “we have to ramp up production to feed the world” are becoming more nuanced. The issue is more complicated than increasing crop production using fewer resources.

Industry has opportunity to reframe food waste issueMore than 40% of the food produced is wasted, according to national and global agencies like the United Nations’ World Health Organization, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. These groups are working on a fundamental shift in how we think about and manage food and food waste.

When crops don’t get consumed, inputs and natural resources are lost. About 13% of greenhouse gases in the U.S. are associated with growing, manufacturing, transporting and disposing of food. The EPA estimates that methane generated from food waste in landfills is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas contributor to global warming.

Understanding the dynamics of agriculture’s role in addressing world hunger, public health, sustainability, climate change and food waste, and how they relate to one another, will allow agricultural leaders to respond strategically to a growing list of questions, such as:

 

  •  Isn’t there enough food, just too much food waste?

  •  Is the “hungry world” issue simply a ploy to enable “industrial” agriculture to use technology that many people are uncomfortable with (e.g., genetic engineering)?

  •  Growing food for an increasingly demanding Chinese market may be profitable for U.S. farmers and ranchers, but what kind of damage is it doing to our natural resources — water, soil, air?

 

Food loss spans the supply chain from on-farm surplus to consumers not finishing meals. In addition, the relationship between food loss and food insecurity looks different in what Bill Gates calls “fat” and “lean” economies.

In lean economies nothing can be taken for granted or wasted. In fat economies, abundance is the norm and increased scrutiny on big agriculture is likely because it only harvests products that meet buyer demands for aesthetically perfect products.

As the debate rages on, careful examination of what gets left behind could result in further vilification of large-scale farming.

What’s more, relief agencies in the U.S. recognize that it’s no longer enough to simply provide access to calories. For several years, agencies have attempted to provide more healthful foods (fruits, vegetables, dairy and whole grains).

Focusing on food waste as an ethical issue too often precludes discussing the economic issues, including the hard costs associated with food waste reduction.

In Florida, the Farmers Feeding Florida program and the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam Putnam, allied with the legislature to appropriate incentive funds to provide grower-shippers up to 15 cents per pound to harvest and pack produce that would normally be left in the field.

This incentive allowed some cost recovery and was enough to triple the poundage provided to food banks.

In California, Secretary of Agriculture Karen Ross and the California Department of Food and Agriculture are partnering with the California Association of Food Banks to double the amount of contributions from farmers to food banks in three years — from 100 million to 200 million pounds. Growers are encouraged to donate surplus products, but when that’s not possible, the food bank group funds picking and packing costs.

Markon Cooperative CEO Tim York says leveraging existing channels could be an effective way to utilize fresh produce that might otherwise not reach consumers.

Reducing waste requires innovation and solutions that maximize efficiency and minimize cost. The longer the hunger issue and food waste stays on the table unclarified, the more stakeholders will frame it for themselves, frequently to the detriment of agriculture.

The opportunity is here for agricultural leaders to take a responsible position on food waste and hunger and begin to shape the issue with real, tangible and quantifiable solutions that add value to society and farmers.

Grower-shippers can continue to look at their waste stream as an economic drain or explore possibilities of a new mindset of waste as an untapped resource with value.

Martha Roberts is with Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida. Kerry Tucker is with Nuffer, Smith, Tucker Inc., a strategic planning and public relations firm. Roberts and Tucker are founders of Food Foresight, a trends intelligence system focused on the agrifood chain.

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