Why Our Food Systems are so Wasteful: Inefficiencies in Agriculture Technology, Infrastructure, and Waste

Guest Blog by Victoria Brodsky

“Food is not lacking, it’s just poorly managed.”  – Irene Banos Ruiz, Deutsche Welle13

Although we currently produce enough to food to feed everyone in the world 1.5x the amount of calories they need daily, there are millions of people starving, and a global food crisis looming. The reason for this includes inefficiencies in the application of agriculture technologies, infrastructure problems, and waste.

Inefficiencies in Agriculture Technology and Infrastructure:

Big data, field sensors, drones, and GPS units are just some examples new technology that must be applied to global agricultural systems in order to meet the food and water demands of a rapidly growing population.14

Although we currently over-produce food, we waste 30-40% of it, either out on the field, during distribution, or down the garbage disposal.15 Technological solutions have the ability to improve water efficiency in fields and throughout the supply chain, down to the harvest times for farms and nutrient composition for consumers.

The more data and knowledge farmers, producers, and distributors have at every step of the process, the more they are empowered to run their operations more efficiently, reducing waste, optimizing inputs and outputs, and providing better, healthier, safer food products to consumers. On the other hand, food sensing technologies and mobile apps that teach consumers about what’s in their food allows them to make more informed purchasing decisions when it comes to food, reducing household waste and improving dietary habits.

However, for most farmers, utilizing all of the latest agriculture technologies is not always easily available or economical. That has to change.

  • ⅓ Of all global food grown that ends up in landfills or rotten in fields
  • 990 billion Of economic loss every year around the world due to food waste
  • 1 lb Is the daily average of food waste per capita in the US

The Waste, Hunger, and Obesity Paradox

Our global food system is unbalanced for three main reasons:

  1. We produce enough calories to feed everyone in the world 4,000 calories per day, yet we waste nearly 40% of it.15
  2. The global demand (as well as economic need) for fast and convenient food has increased dramatically over the last century, leading to a global obesity epidemic and “hungry- overweight” paradox.
  3. Climate changes is putting both micro and macronutrients quality of food at risk.

While over 800 million people around the world go hungry, 2.1 billion people are overweight or obese.17

Both sets of people are dying because they’re not well-nourished— a paradox referred to as the hungry-overweight paradox.18 Those literally going hungry every night due to lack of access to food (due to poverty, or other reasons) lack both calories and nutrients for a healthy life. Those who either choose, or do not have access to nutritious food are sick from over-eating a caloric, yet low-nutrient diet, dying early from heart disease, diabetes, and other overweight/obesity- related diseases.

Food Waste Accounts for 8% of All Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Food waste is not just the amount you leave on your plate at a restaurant; the impact of food waste come from every step of agriculture process – from the food left unharvested in fields, to the food improperly stored or over-served at restaurants and grocery stores, and all of the water, cropland, fertilizers and pesticides that was required to grow that food that was ultimately wasted. These aspects combined make food waste a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The 30% of food that is wasted around the world takes up 18% of the arable crop land, and 21% all freshwater.19

The largest energy consumption in the agriculture process is Nitrogen fertilizer, which has been shown to have negative effects on atmospheric conditions, terrestrial ecosystems, and human health. The second largest mineral used in fertilizer is Phosphorous, a limited and mined natural resource whose fertilizers can fuel harmful algae blooms if leaked into oceans and rivers.

“Investing in agriculture is one of the most effective strategies for reducing poverty and hunger and promoting sustainability.”  – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations20

Food system technology, sustainable infrastructure, and waste to resource solutions are key investments of this century in order to change the way we feed our global population, while preserving natural resources.  


Sources Cited:

(13) (5) Deutsche Welle. (n.d.). Sustainable food for everyone? The challenge of our century | DW | 11.07.2017. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/environment-world-population-day-agriculture-sustainability-food-waste-food-security-overpopulation/a-39628974

(14) Sparapani, T. (2017, March 23). How Big Data And Tech Will Improve Agriculture, From Farm To Table. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/timsparapani/2017/03/23/how-big-data-and-tech-will-improve-agriculture-from-farm-to-table/#bd0149359891

(15) Steiner, R., Khan, Z., Duncan, J., Mukhebi, V., Vuillaume, R., Patel, S., . . . Myers, M. (n.d.). YieldWise Food Loss. Retrieved from https://www.rockefellerfoundation.org/our-work/initiatives/yieldwise/

(16) Milman, O. (2018, April 18). Americans waste 150,000 tons of food each day – equal to a pound per person. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/18/americans-waste-food-fruit-vegetables-study

(17) Latest News on Hunger in US, Africa, Asia, Global. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.worldhunger.org/

(18) The Hungry and Overweight Paradox. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.eatright.org/health/weight-loss/overweight-and-obesity/the-hungry-and-overweight-paradox

(19) Search Results. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton

(20) FAO Statistical Pocketbook World Food and Agriculture [PDF]. (2015). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations.

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