Probing Question: Why do we waste so much food?

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Chalk it up to one of the many contradictions of modern life in developed nations: we cajole our kids into eating all the food on their plates “because children in poorer countries are starving” at the same time as we face a growing obesity epidemic worldwide.

Is there really not enough food on the planet, or are we just wasting the food we have?

"Questions about food waste are very important as we try to address a complex set of world food problems," said Bryan McDonald, a Penn State assistant professor of history and author of the book "Food Security."

According to a recent United Nations report, about 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted each year while hundreds of millions of people go hungry. "Estimates are that between 30 to 50 percent of all food is wasted," McDonald noted. "But there are some important differences in food waste in developed and developing countries. In developing countries, most food that is wasted is lost due to lack of proper storage and transportation options."

In developed countries like the United States, he explained, good food tends to end up in the landfill because of "demands by retailers and consumers for unblemished produce, as well as people's desires to get a good deal, which often leads them to buy in larger quantities. Another problem is people's misperceptions about how much food they will eat or what kinds of food they will eat."

Food waste is a critical issue for a couple of reasons, McDonald said. The most obvious problem is that wasted food can’t be eaten by people who need it, but producing food "requires large amounts of land, water, energy and inputs like fertilizers and labor, much of which are also lost when food is wasted."

When it comes to produce, consumers and producers "share the responsibility" for demanding blemish-free fruits and vegetables, a preference that is "common practice in the U.S. and other nations, where people reject nutritious food based on its appearance." In part, explained McDonald, "this problem is so much greater today because of the increased speed and scale of the global food system. More than 10 percent of the food consumed by Americans comes from outside the country, including almost two-thirds of fruits and vegetables and up to 80 percent of seafood."

As with other sectors of the economy, McDonald added, "stores face pressures from existing in a 'just in time' delivery system where more food is always on the way. A failure to move goods that are in stores means lost sales." Agribusiness has both contributed to and responded to these pressures by producing perfect-looking produce that stands up to shipping stress but often lacks flavor. As he noted, "People today are often unsure of what sorts of blemishes on fruits and vegetables are normal and okay, and what sort indicate problems with a food."

We might imagine that people waste less food during times of hardship, and to some extent that has been true. During the First and Second World Wars, "various programs encouraged people to reduce food waste as part of the war effort," McDonald said. "In the 1950s, the American government put out films that taught school children to avoid buying more food than they could eat to avoid wasting it. So clearly, we have some good historical examples of ways that clear messages can help people make better decisions about food." Ironically, noted McDonald, "Our nation's recent economic troubles have likely contributed to food waste as people looking for a better value for their food dollars often try to economize by purchasing in large quantities."

"We have a growing world population desiring diets with more meat, dairy and processed foods, while at the same time we face a need to reduce the environmental impacts of food production," he added. This kind of diet consumes the most water, animal feed and space, as well as energy for transportation and processing. “It's clear that developed countries have a need for better education, as well as policy changes and technological improvements," said McDonald, "whereas developing nations need to be able to provide better storage solutions, better transportation and market access links."

A starting point for Americans? Food waste can be addressed through a number of means including policy and education changes, he pointed out. For example, improved labeling and education could help consumers make better decisions by more clearly explaining the difference between "sell by" and "best by" dates commonly found on food.

At the same time, McDonald noted, there are many habits people can put into practice on their own that would reduce food waste, and might end up being better for their waist lines and bottom lines as well. "In my kitchen at home," he said, "I have a poster from the U.S. Food Administration that was produced during WWI. It gives a set of food rules to guide in conserving food. They include reminders to buy food with thought, serve just enough and use what is left. More and more, I think that advice, now almost 100 years old, is a great place for people to start and realize they can have a real impact on reducing food waste by being mindful of what they buy and eat."

Bryan McDonald is assistant professor of history and can be reached at blm26@psu.edu or (814) 863-8949.

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Last Updated December 02, 2014