How are we going to feed ourselves in 2050, when the population of the world reaches 9.7 billion? How are we going to manage resources, when the majority of fresh water in the world goes to farming, and nearly half of farm produce ends up in landfills? Food waste of various types is the leading cause of methane gas production from landfills, which is contributing to climate change and impacting our access to fresh water. Across the world, being overweight (rich countries) and underweight (poor countries) is causing loss of life and human potential, and an enormous burden on health care systems. Will a kitchen still be used?
These strangely circular global problems can be broken down into these: unequal land and water resources; systems of agriculture that will require infrastructure development for storage and shipping of food in the developing world; systems of food shopping and eating behaviors in the developed world that perpetuates waste and obesity. It might seem like a simple problem with simple solutions, to have half of the world ill from poor nutrition and vitamin deficiency, and half dying of diseases caused by obesity. Even stranger to have people going hungry while half the food we produce goes to waste. But these are problems of different systems, and changes in one system, while impactful, do not necessarily cause change across the board.
The challenges of agriculture, infrastructure development, storage and shipping of food, and nutrition in the developing world, are related systems that can be affected by resources, research, and hard work. In the developed world, resources, research, and hard work are also needed to affect change. But what is it that we need to change? Patterns of behavior, cultural standards, entitlement, habit? Are we all just spoiled brats who want what we want, and if it isn’t right, we throw it away in a snit? Will we have to face a global Armageddon on fresh strawberries and the decimation of the artisanal cheese industry before we start showing some care about our food?
We can leave the whole charged issue of spoiled brat/snit to the sociologists. The rest of us want to do better. We want to eat healthy food, and we want to eat ugly squash and tomatoes to save them from an afterlife in the landfill, covered with flies and making methane gas. We don’t want to throw away food, but we also don’t want to overeat, and after two weeks in the fridge, the Chinese food take out really needs to go. We would all probably eat less meat and more quinoa if we had a clue how to cook it, or what you were supposed to do with it in reference to a pot of chili. And we all want to support local organic farmers and reduce the carbon footprint of monoculture farms, but some mornings we just need to grab a muffin and go, and we don’t care how far that muffin had to travel to get into our hands.
These are guilt-laden conundrums, in which we take on responsibility for the fate of the planet as a direct consequence of how far our coffee beans were forced to travel. It’s no wonder that eating, tasting, growing, a simple cob of corn comes with a mantle of blame and quiet desperation before we even begin to douse it in butter and salt. It’s ridiculous, but it’s us.
But individual changes in behavior, while helpful, are not going to change a system that is unsuited for the current population growth v. resources issue as we understand it. At this time, most of us have kitchens in our homes or apartments. We shop for groceries in the grocery store, and take food home to cook for meals. We eat out in restaurants or fast food places a couple of times a week. In this system, farmers are going bankrupt, farm workers who pick produce are starving, fast food and restaurant workers are living below the poverty line, and grocery stores are showing huge profits. In addition, much of the food we buy is better travelled than we are. Those crazy jet-setting grapes, that arrive in the store after a long ocean voyage from South America!
Food waste happens in the current system in several places: at the farms, unattractive fresh fruits and veggies are not even picked–too expensive, and no market. At the grocery store, the nice-looking stuff goes fast, while the asymmetrical squash sits until it is past prime. And when those lovely grapes are on sale, we take home a huge bag, and after several days of gorging on grapes, we let the rest of the bag sit until it starts to form raisins, even in the fridge, and we throw it away. There are several nonprofit groups who are developing systems to deal with food waste, including rescuing ugly produce and delivering it to food banks. While these groups are doing good work, they are not changing the system that is producing the problem. Continue reading