Wasted Opportunity: Inefficiency and Waste in our Food Systems

Posted on May 21st, 2013 by

In the area of Haiti I study, food crops like cabbage frequently rot in the field due to the monopsony of a single market in Port-au-Prince and difficulty of transporting crops to market. (Photo by Anna Versluis.)

In Haiti, food crops like cabbage not uncommonly rot in the field due to the monopsony of a single market in Port-au-Prince and due to poor road conditions that make it challenging to transport crops to market. (Photo by Anna Versluis.)

Jonathan Foley, Director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, has a recent essay on meeting food needs in a world of growing human population. It is titled “Wasted Opportunity.” Here’s an excerpt (bold font added):

“It never fails. Whenever we talk about meeting the world’s growing demands for food, energy and water, chances are good that we start with ways to produce more of these vital resources. We talk about solar panels, nuclear power stations, GMOs, advanced hydroponics facilities, desalination methods, and other, latest whizbang technologies.

“We seem obsessed with the need to always deliver more energy, more food and more water, without asking the obvious question: Can we use our existing resources better by becoming more efficient and reducing the huge amount of waste we see today?

. . .

“It turns out that recent investments in agricultural technology and advanced genetics have been making only a modest dent in meeting our global food demands.

“It’s estimated that, on average, 30 to 50 percent of the world’s food is never consumed. It’s wasted somewhere in the supply chain that connects farmers to consumers. In poorer countries, much of the waste happens between the farm and the marketplace, because crops are lost to pests or due to a lack of infrastructure (trains, trucks, roads, warehouses, etc.) to get products to market. In rich countries, most of the food waste happens around the retailer or consumer — in our supermarkets, restaurants, cafeterias and refrigerators. And while it is bad enough that we lose the food in rich countries, in poor countries the food is lost, but so is the farmer’s income — a double tragedy.

“So if we’re losing 30 to 50 percent of the world’s food through waste, and all of the agricultural technologies of the past 20 years have only given us a 20 percent increase in crop yields, why aren’t we focusing at least as much attention on reducing food waste? Even cutting waste in half would be a huge step toward global food security and a boon for the environment. Billions of dollars are currently invested in genetic modification, advanced agricultural chemicals and farm machinery. Where is the comparable investment in reducing food waste?”



  1. Jeff Jeremiason says:

    Great post Anna. We should get Jon to come down to give a seminar sometime. He is an excellent speaker and ES students should follow the happenings at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota and read their magazine: ensia.com