For millennia, humanity’s most urgent priority was hunting and gathering enough food to make through the winter, if not the next day. That’s all changed and not necessarily for the better.
The issue of food waste has been in and out of the news lately.
Not because the problem comes and goes, but because nothing in the endless news cycle has much of a shelf life.
Even coverage of the actual end of the world due to total planetary implosion would be followed by an upbeat newscaster tossing it to the busty meteorologist and the balding sports guy for a recap of that day’s weather and sports.
But with hundreds of millions of people worldwide struggling with hunger, food waste is a serious issue. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, as much as one-third of all the food produced in the world ends up being wasted somewhere between cultivation, production and consumption. In the developed countries of Europe and North America, fully half of all that waste takes place in consumer households.
On a daily basis, most of us think nothing of chucking out tons of leftovers, produce, even packaged foods when a date on the label says it’s no longer totally fresh.
There aren’t many of those folks left, but if you have friends or relatives who were alive during the Great Depression in the 1930s, such behavior is appalling. The idea of tossing food in the trash is unthinkable. Likewise, people in Europe who survived World War II, and the famines that followed even after VE Day, find it incomprehensible that us moderns are oblivious to just how much edible food we tend to waste.
Foodservice isn’t much better, as anyone who’s attended a business luncheon or banquet can attest. Even as the festivities are underway for whatever ceremony is being celebrated, servers are as busy hauling away half-eaten entrees as they are hustling plates of some fancy dessert — half of which will also end up inside giant plastic bags headed for some landfill.
The downside of change
Of course, all this waste of food affects not only individual grocery bills. On a macro scale it also impacts allocations of water, energy, and land use, resources that are obviously in limited supply.
Discussion about the issue of waste principally focus on proposed solutions, which begs the question that needs to be addressed: How did we get here?
How have otherwise intelligent, civilized populations in just a couple generations gone from worrying about having enough food to survive day-to-day to worrying about where to dump all the uneaten food consigned to the garbage each day?
It’s the curse of abundance.
As a nation, we produce so much food that scarcity and starvations are no longer problems, but the unintended consequences effects are serious: we dispose of staples such as meat and produce, and devour snacks and treats and junk.
And it’s not just food. We have an abundance of energy such as the world’s never seen, and so we drive gas-guzzling vehicles, while we crank up the heat in the winter and blast the AC in the summer.
We have such an abundance of technology that we’ve grown lazy on a scale never before known in human history. We don’t have to chop wood, or haul water, or shuck some ears of corn — so we don’t — but we can’t even get park the car and walk 50 feet to pick up a prescription of buy some burgers.
All of that behavior eventually needs to change, because none of the above is sustainable. But it can’t, and it won’t, until we confront the downside of abundance.
We have all the food, comfort and transport earlier generations could only dream about, but in some very important ways, it has negatively affected our health, our lives and our human habitat.
Like a powerful drug that cures an illness, but saddles the patient with unwanted side effects, the incredible abundance of modern lifestyles has created wasteful habits that are harmful to both people and the planet.
But the solution must begin by acknowledging the problem.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator