Photograph by Brian Finke, National Geographic
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A Colombia banana plantation exports 200 tons a week, while 17 tons stay behind in a compost pile. They don’t meet specifications set by mostly U.S. and EU buyers: they must be a minimum of eight inches, though some brands accept them down to 6.5. Many more are rejected because they are too curved, too short, too thin, or have minor blemishes.

Photograph by Brian Finke, National Geographic

A Third of All Food Never Gets Eaten. How Can We Fix This?

We squander enough food to feed everyone suffering from hunger more than twice over.

With governments fretting over how to feed more than nine billion people by 2050, a dominant narrative calls for increasing global food production by 70 to 100 percent. But agriculture already represents one of the greatest threats to planetary health. It is responsible for 70 percent of the planet’s freshwater withdrawals, 80 percent of the world’s tropical and subtropical deforestation, and 30 to 35 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, nearly 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger. But according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, we squander enough food—globally, 2.9 trillion pounds a year—to feed every one of them more than twice over. Where’s all that food—about a third of the planet’s production—going?

In developing nations much is lost postharvest for lack of adequate storage facilities, good roads, and refrigeration. In comparison, developed nations waste more food farther down the supply chain, when retailers order, serve, or display too much and when consumers ignore leftovers in the back of the fridge or toss perishables before they’ve expired.

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Imperfect oranges are separated from others during harvest in Peru. Globally, 46 percent of fruits and vegetables never make it from farm to table.

Wasting food takes an environmental toll as well. Producing food that no one eats—whether sausages or snickerdoodles—also squanders the water, fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, fuel, and land needed to grow it. The quantities aren’t trivial.

A River of Waste

Globally a year’s production of uneaten food guzzles as much water as the entire annual flow of the Volga, Europe’s most voluminous river. Growing the 133 billion pounds of food that retailers and consumers discard in the United States annually slurps the equivalent of more than 70 times the amount of oil lost in the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to American Wasteland author Jonathan Bloom. These staggering numbers don’t even include the losses from farms, fishing vessels, and slaughterhouses.

If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S. On a planet of finite resources, with the expectation of at least two billion more residents by 2050, this profligacy, Tristram Stuart argues in his book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, is obscene.

Lost En Route
Every year some 2.9 trillion pounds of food—about a third of all that the world produces—never get consumed. Along the supply chain fruits and vegetables are lost or wasted at higher rates than other foods. Easily bruised and vulnerable to temperature swings en route from farm to table, they’re also usually the first to get tossed at home.
Food loss
Lost during production and processing
Food waste
Discarded by retail markets and consumers