As farmers, you’ve done a phenomenal job of increasing efficiency and utilizing technology to grow more food. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says today’s farmers produce 262% more food with 2% fewer inputs (labor, seeds, feed, fertilizer, etc.), compared to 1950. What’s disturbing is that as much as half of all food produced on the planet is lost before reaching a human stomach.

Food waste is an environmental, social and financial problem. It exists in developed as well as undeveloped countries, says Tim Fox, head of Energy and Environment for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the United Kingdom.

“With the knowledge we have today, we can meet many of the challenges facing us now,” he says. “Do the basic math: If we can feed 6 billion people on 2 to 2.8 billion tons of food, we should be able to feed 9 to 10 billion people on a little more than 4 billion tons. If we’re presently wasting 30% to 50% of the food we produce, and we identify ways to minimize that loss, not only can we feed more people on what is already being produced, but we can radically reduce pressure on water, energy and land-use.”

Food loss happens with poor harvesting techniques, ineffective transportation infrastructures and inadequately engineered storage in less developed countries. Fox says 40% of losses are a result of poorly engineered storage.

The Refed.com website gives multiple examples of savings that could be gained through more efficient methods. It states much of the food that’s donated to help others ends up spoiling before it gets to its source. Expanding a temperature-controlled food distribution infrastructure and labor availability to handle food could have a benefit of $2,366 per ton. And spoilage-prevention packaging that would actively slow fruit and meat spoilage through ethylene absorption and other techniques could have a financial benefit of $2,326 per ton, according to Refed.com research.

In developed countries with “mature” economies, waste is due to a mentality of excess. Big-box stores encourage over-purchasing. Consumers demand “cosmetic perfection,” which means a lot of perfectly good food is discarded, though we are seeing a slight change in this philosophy. People buy food with good intentions but much of it gets thrown out before it’s prepared. The U.S. hospitality industry often serves portions that are far larger than most consumers can – or should – eat. In fact, Refed.com states that serving food on smaller-sized plates in all-you-can-eat dining establishments to minimize consumer food waste would garner a $2,366 per ton benefit.

This waste doesn’t include the large amounts of land, energy, fertilizers and water that are lost in the production of foodstuffs that simply end up as waste.

“This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands."
Tim Fox, head of Energy and Environment for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the United Kingdom

These are “fixable” problems, but they require dramatic shifts in consumer attitudes, buying habits and behaviors. In developed economies, we need to “reconnect with the value of food,” says Fox. “In terms of developing/emerging nations, we need to facilitate a clean technology ‘leapfrog’ over the resource-hungry unsustainable phase of industrialization, to avoid our previous failures and mistakes.

Reducing food wastage and losses shifts the burden of proof to all people. Farmers will still need to increase production, but reducing wastage can play a pivotal role in meeting the challenge of feeding an estimated 9.5 billion people by 2050.