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

Others have been making similar arguments for years, but reducing food waste has become a matter of international urgency. Some U.S. schools, where children dump up to 40 percent of their lunches into the trash, are setting up sharing tables, letting students serve themselves portions they know they’ll eat, allotting more time for lunch, and scheduling it after recess—all proven methods of boosting consumption. Countless businesses, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and cafeterias, have stepped forward to combat waste by quantifying how much edible food isn’t consumed, optimizing their purchasing, shrinking portion sizes, and beefing up efforts to move excess to charities. Stuart himself has made a specialty of investigating conditions farther up the supply chain, where supermarket standards and ordering practices lead to massive, but mostly hidden, dumps of edible food.

Buy “Ugly”

Grade standards—industry driven and voluntary—were devised long ago to provide growers and buyers with a common language for evaluating produce and mediating disputes. They also can help reduce food waste. If growers can sort their asparagus or tangelos into established grades, they stand a better chance of finding markets for their “seconds.” Supermarkets have always been free to set their own standards, of course, but in recent years upscale grocers have started running their produce departments like beauty pageants, responding to customers, they say, who expect only platonically ideal produce: apples round and shiny, asparagus straight and tightly budded.

“It’s all about quality and appearance,” says Rick Stein, vice president of fresh foods at the Food Marketing Institute. “And only the best appearance will capture share of the consumer’s wallet.” Some of the produce that doesn’t capture share will be donated to food banks or chopped up and used in a supermarket’s prepared meals or salad bar, but most of U.S. grocers’ excess food is neither donated nor recycled. Stuart applauds some U.S. and EU supermarkets’ recent campaigns to sell “ugly” produce at a discount, but he prefers a systemic fix. “It would be far better to simply relax the standards,” he says, surveying a sea of abandoned Peruvian citrus for which no secondary market—ugly or otherwise—exists.

As the population grows and emerging economies develop a taste for meat and dairy products, which require huge inputs of grain and other resources for relatively little caloric gain, this toll will worsen. But converting more wildlands to farm fields may not be necessary, some experts say. If we slash waste, change our diet to eat less meat and dairy, divert fewer food crops to biofuels, and boost yields on underperforming acres, we may be able to feed more than nine billion people a healthy diet without trashing more rain forests, plowing up more prairies, or wiping out more wetlands.

By the end of 2015 the UN and the U.S. had pledged to halve food waste by 2030. The exact mechanisms of this ambitious goal haven’t been spelled out. But already countries and companies are devising and adopting standardized metrics to quantify waste. If the target is met, enough food could be saved to feed at least one billion people.