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UN food agency stunner: World loses one-third of total global food production

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Bloom: “2% of all US energy goes to food we’re throwing away.”

Food waste

Figure 2 shows that the per capita food loss in Europe and North-America is 280-300 kg/year. In Sub- Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia it is 120-170 kg/year. The total per capita production of edible parts of food for human consumption is, in Europe and North-America, about 900 kg/year and, in sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia, 460 kg/year.

By Tyce Herrman, the first ever Climate Progress intern, in his first post

The agriculture sector is one the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, approximately 10-12% of the global total according to the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change.

Climate Progress’s ongoing series on food insecurity explores both how climate change is affecting agriculture and how agriculture is contributing to climate change.  This post examines something close to our hearts (and stomachs): food waste.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a study on food production last week that concluded 1.3 billion tons of food is lost each year.  That’s one third of total global production.  This inefficiency in food production and consumption reflects wasted energy and consequently unnecessary GHG emissions.

According to FAO, food loss in developing countries has multiple causes:

The causes of food losses and waste in low-income countries are mainly connected to financial, managerial and technical limitations in harvesting techniques, storage and cooling facilities in difficult climatic conditions, infrastructure, packaging and marketing systems. Given that many smallholder farmers in developing countries live on the margins of food insecurity, a reduction in food losses could have an immediate and significant impact on their livelihoods.

Food waste is rampant in the developed, rich nations of the United States and Western Europe, driven by overwhelming consumption demands on all levels of the supply chain (See the FAO graph above).

Farmers are forced to throw out produce that is not up to supermarket’s aesthetic standards and plow under whole fields of ripe produce if market prices aren’t sufficient to cover labor expenses.  Produce farmers will often plant a secondary field in case the yields are not as high as expected.  If yield requirements are met sufficiently with the primary field, the secondary field is simply plowed under.

Manufacturers dump whole pallets of food when supermarkets decline a purchase. Supermarkets throw out shelves of food when they’ve passed “best use by” dates, even though the food is still perfectly safe for consumption.  In 1995, the USDA found that 5.4 billion pounds of food were thrown out by retailers.

Finally, consumers in the developed world notoriously throw out tons of unconsumed food they let rot – approximately 210-255 lbs per person.  Food is viewed as an endless luxury to those who can afford it.

Climate Progress spoke with Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, who pointed out that America actually exceeds the global average of one third and wastes about 40% of its total food production.  This food production is highly resource intensive.  As Bloom pointed out, “We are so removed from the agricultural process.  Most people have no idea how many resources are used in farming.”

What does food waste mean in terms of climate change?  “When we throw away 40%, 40% of resources invested goes for naught, for nothing” said Bloom.  He estimates that “2% of all US energy goes to food we’re throwing away.” The vast amount of water, oil, and other resources that go into farming are squandered, and the gears of industrial agriculture spin with no purpose.

The FAO study on food waste calls for consumer patterns to drastically change in the U.S. and Western Europe.  Bloom had several ideas that could shift our understanding and use of food.

  • The federal government should outlaw organic matter in landfills altogether.  This will require us to re-think food’s value and role and how wasteful we can be with our food.  Bloom quips, “We’ll have to ban it eventually, why not now?” Norway and Nova Scotia have already banned organic matter in landfills.
  • More incentives for farmers to harvest all they grow and not plow under crops like a more streamlined tax deduction process for food donations from farmers and retailers.
  • A stronger government gleaning programs that could bypass some of the economic barriers preventing farmers from harvesting all their produce.
  • Public awareness campaigns showing people ways to reduce waste and reconnecting them with agriculture

Changing food consumption patterns here and now in the United States and abroad will help reduce the inevitably rising pressure on food prices from climate change, peak oil, and changing diets.  It would also have a significant impact on mitigating climate change.  Bloom concluded that right now we are “aiding climate change from our kitchen trashcans.” Each of us can start by being more careful with what we eat, and most importantly, what we don’t.

Tyce Herrman is a rising senior at Stetson University in DeLand, FL.  He is pursuing a B.S. in Environmental Science and a B.A. in Philosophy.

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11 Responses to UN food agency stunner: World loses one-third of total global food production

  1. Salamano says:

    Well Done, Tyce.

    What is the current situation on ‘subsidies’ to the farming industry. Last I thought, they were actually receiving more in subsidies than even the oil industry. Wikipedia has it at $20 Billion per year, and one report does the equivalent of a CAP analysis on subsidies, and puts all direct and indirect subsidy closer to $180 Billion per year.

    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/economy-lab/daily-mix/for-us-farmers-subsidies-the-best-cash-crop/article1813425/

    Is it that farmers need more incentives and subsidies, or perhaps “different” subsidies? Politically, reducing farm subsidy has been just about impossible over the years, because of the “Gang of _____” senators from farming states that will ban together on farm issues to provide fillibusters (and break them) where needed.

  2. Ed Hummel says:

    I have a feeling that this problem will gradually be taken care of by circumstances as climate change continues to play havoc with “normal” agricultural production and we’re forced to scrounge for every last bit of food that we do grow. It would be nice if our whole mindset were to change before that, but I have my doubts as long as our advertising based culture still reigns supreme.

  3. llewelly says:

    There is a silver lining here – it shows that if humanity really had to feed 9 billion people, it could be done solely with more efficient production and use.

    Whether that will still be feasible in the upcoming climate remains an open question, and obviously the sooner we shift to more efficient food industry, the better off we will be.

  4. Thank you Salamano!

    Much of the federal money that is misappropriated is in tax breaks and direct payments to Big Ag companies that produce the seed, ship the produce, and run the agriculture production chain (much like the Big Oil stories that have been all over the headlines). Direct payments to farmers can be problematic at times too, as they are often directed to the largest farm operations at the expense of small farmers and their operations. The payments can also be used to prop up crop production that is unsustainable.

    It is important to understand the above within the whole context of price controls though. Here’s my brief summation of price controls, of which “subsidies” fall into.

    A nation’s economic support to agriculture producers is quantified by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (not all countries are members of OECD, especially developing nations, but the method and principles are transferable to any country).The total amount of support is quantified as the Total Support Estimate (TSE). The supports can be divided between those focused at producers and those for the public agricultural goods, entitled Producer Support Estimate (PSE) and General Services Support Estimate (GSSE), respectively. The types of support factored into the PSE include market price support (MPS), budgetary payments, and budgetary revenue foregone. MPS modifies domestic crop prices in relation to world markets (most importantly border countries), budgetary supports involve payments based on agricultural productivity, and budgetary revenue foregone involves lowering farm input costs.

    MPS is typically the largest share of the PSE, (though these are falling in some cases) and is attractive to governments because MPSs can take place without lots of budget funding (and can even fill budget gaps). They are often inefficient ways of providing support though. “Support provided as market price support can have a large effect on production and trade and has been a source of friction with trading partners, imposes additional and regressive costs on domestic consumers, while doing a poor job of addressing objectives such as farm income, environmental protection and preservation of rural areas” (OECD, 2009).In fact, agricultural supports that focus on the producer (PSE) typically are inefficient and largely unsustainable means of support. Supports that do not distort markets more effectively address agricultural needs. Even in countries and blocs like the United States and European Union with low %PSE values (how much of the total receipts of farm bills is producer support), the composition of producer support is critically important.

    As commodities and markets emerge (organic for instance) that have obvious benefits over the paradigm commodities and markets, it may be appropriate to designate a larger portion of supports to these producers to facilitate the paradigm shift. This logic holds over to producers in developing nations. While investment in common agricultural goods may be ideal, the “second best” solutions of producer supports to disadvantaged farmers may be necessary.

    So as you suggested, we need a shift of incentives and supports. First, support should be shifted towards more general, public goods projects. Secondly, those supports that go directly to producers should be towards more sustainable production like perennial crops and organic (though organic is not a magic bullet and can be done very unsustainably). Finally, we cannot ignore small farmers and farm operations.

    Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Agricultural Policies in OECD Countries: Monitoring and Evaluation. (2009).
    http://www.oecd.org/document/54/0,3746,en_2649_33773_43202422_1_1_1_37401,00.html

  5. scas says:

    I’ve always thought – if we were to reduce waste, all that would happen is population would grow to match supply and the safety margin would be yet smaller against famine. Perhaps we reduce our emissions 5%. A negligible unnoticeable effect on CC.

    Without family planning and growth control, it is a futile situation. Locavore vegetarian – grow your own and eat meat at most once a week.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This makes me think of that excellent movie ‘The Gleaner’ which followed gleaners in France, where gleaning is protected by French Revolutionary law. Modern gleaning from compactors outside supermarkets provided a rich diet, indeed. This is just another example of capitalism’s extraordinary wastefulness, not the fraudulent ‘efficiency’ that its mendacious propagandists endlessly proclaim. The only field in which the conscienceless greed of capitalism is truly efficient is in piling up huge fortunes for the global parasite elite. This type of utter waste will, along with falls in food production, lead to a massive global food crisis, within a few years, if not even sooner. Still that will open up real profit opportunities for riot suppression and the ‘prison-industrial complex’.

  7. dp says:

    correction: USDA sez “5.4 billion POUNDS of food were lost at the retail level in 1995.”

  8. dp says:

    see this is why america should switch to metric. if relationships don’t make sense it increases mistakes.

  9. Richard Brenne says:

    Great first post (about the most important issue of all), Tyce, and welcome to CP! (One question about your bio, wouldn’t philosophy be the BS?:)

    Tomorrow I’m spending the day with one of my all-time heroes, Al Bartlett, the physicist (former President of the American Association of Physics Teachers, which is aapt) who doesn’t feel Malthus was too Malthusian. Actually he belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Malthusians (who think the monument might outlast the human population available to appreciate it) with Malthus and Paul and Anne Ehrlich (or ecologist Garrett Hardin or Sociologist William Catton), who each came to the same conclusions through the lenses of their respective disciplines.

    Also some pretty fair intellects like Thomas Jefferson and Charles Darwin agree with Malthus’ thesis that the exponential growth of population would someday exceed the arithmatic growth of food production.

    Malthus, Jefferson and Darwin (who published his famous “Origin of Species” in 1859, the same year as Colonel Drake drilled the first real oil well) just couldn’t foresee how cheap and abundant fossil fuels used to transport food and for farm machinery, pesticides and fertilizers would temporarily increase food production at an even greater rate than population increased.

    But just because a prediction is delayed doesn’t mean it won’t come true eventually. There are many examples of this, including da Vinci’s prediction of heavier-than-air flight and Jules Verne’s prediction of a flight to the moon that were regarded as preposterous by many until they happened.

    So as to llewellyn’s point at #4 I’m sure Al Bartlett will again say (I’ve asked him during many interviews and he’s attended about 15 hours of my panel discussions) that any increase in food production has only and will only (short of any attempts to address population) inspire an increase in population until the mile-high skyscraper we’ve built out of bricks guarantees an ever more horrific collapse.

    We need to waste less food and energy at every level and grow and harvest our food as locally as possible, because Peak Oil and Peak Everything (that Bartlett has called “Copycat Peaks” for decades) will mean that shipping food from one continent to another will just get more difficult, not less.

    Thanks again Tyce, and actually the marriage of environmental studies and philosophy is exactly what we most need, maybe even more than a marriage of Charlie Sheen and Lindsey Lohan.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    During and after our floods and cyclone Yasi, certain fruits and vegetables were in short supply or damaged. The supermarkets did respond by lowering their standards and putting ‘seconds’ up for sale. People got used to buying produce with funny shapes and spots, ME