The Future of Food Waste

By Jonathan Hirsch

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“Food waste” may not be the sexiest term in the food space today, but it is arguably the most important. While publications dedicated to the minutiae of our culinary pecadillos are rapidly expanding to meet the needs of their readership, how we deal with the less trendy aspects of food and its manufacture will prove to be a story worthy of our undivided attention. The big question we need to be asking ourselves is not “Does the supermarket have what I want?” but “How does what I want arrive at the supermarket?” In other words, how does our food get to our plate, and to plates around the world? On a local level in the U.S. the farm to table movement has become an embedded part of the food consuming experience, but conversations about the international transport in a broader sense, has not.

In America and Europe, the needs of the middle class food consumer are a known factor. But what about countries such as China and India, where the population (and in particular the middle class) is rapidly approaching demand levels that the global food system cannot sustain indefinitely? “Everywhere around the world the middle class is growing” says John Floros, a KSU professor and researcher who is an expert in the field of food waste. “That means the growing middle class will be looking for better food, in terms of safety, in terms of taste, better in terms of all sorts of things. And whoever can produce that better food, in terms of a business perspective, will have a very profitable future.”

The problem of providing quality, safe, and diverse food sources for emerging middle class populations around the world is compounded by another critical factor: these new middle class populations will not grow in the way that previous populations have. “All that population growth will happen in urban areas, and not urban areas as we know of them today, but the urban areas of the future,” says Floros, “it’s going to happen in the mega cities. Those with populations of 30, 40, 50 million people. At the crux of the issue of food waste is this: when your demand is to feed a small city of fifty thousand people, or a small village, as opposed to a large city of 50 million people, your demands are very different.”

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How do we begin to imagine not only an entirely new population with the same complex food needs that exist in the developed world today, but also a new way in which they will grow? And most importantly, how do we account for these changes in the global food supply chain before that day arrives? These looming issues regarding food waste and growing populations require an imaginative and interdisciplinary approach. While the megacities of hungry consumers with disposable income may appear to be a deeply problematic future for the planet, there are opportunities to reshape the way we transport and distribute our food on a global scale that will help solve even deeper problems in the food system and beyond.

“If you were to feed a city of 50,ooo people and you were to provide a variety of foods to those people” says Floros, “chances are there will be a lot of leftovers in every aspect of that variety. But when you’re dealing with a more dense population you should have a better probability of distribution and making full use of those resources. Its a logistics issue. This is something the logistical part of the food system needs to figure out. And in many senses we have. But I think theres a way to do it better. You still have to deal with the huge problem of growing the food somewhere and treating it in such a way by the time it gets to the big city that it’s still fresh and has good flavor, its still safe microbiologically as well as chemically and something that the huge middle class as well as other classes would want to buy. That’s a huge problem that we’re not investing in or addressing right now.”

Part of the reason that food waste is not receiving the funding that Floros and other researchers in the U.S. think it deserves highlights a tenuous alliance between federal regulation, and private commercial interests. “Traditionally we said, ‘well this is not the government’s job to find the most sustainable and efficient way to transport food. It’s the job of the companies who produce that food,” says Floros, “those companies that process, handle, and transform the materials, they should find the most efficient way.’ Well they do it, but guess what? They do it in a way that benefits them, not necessarily the public or the consumer. It’s not that they’re doing something wrong necessarily, but they’re not looking at the total system.”

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The siloing of responsibilities in regards to these macroeconomic trends presents a unique challenge to researchers, regulators, and food purveyors: what is the most efficient way to produce and deliver food, both on a local and a global scale?

Floros notes that while it may seem the less obvious choice, food waste is a critical area of investment that the federal government could do more to facilitate. “So we’re not investing alot in research that addresses processing of food. Are we really doing it right? In most people’s mind when you say processing food it’s a negative, but I would argue that it’s not. Without processing we wouldn’t have ketchup wine, mayonnaise, beer, and many other products. We used to actually put quite a lot of effort in those areas that we don’t anymore. I don’t want to say our government doesn’t contribute money to research, because we do. But compared to other investments we are making in other sectors of the economy it’s very small and the majority of  investments go towards production agriculture. So we’re putting money into developing new varieties of wheat and corn, and were putting money into developing some better vegetables, but we’re putting very little money into finding better ways to handle the crops the fruits, vegetables, and other raw materials in a better way from the time it leaves the farm until the time it reaches the consumer.”

In a future where cities will be unimaginably large and densely packed, Floros and voices like him are calling for more research and discussion into how individual societies and global communities deal with waste. Without this kind of research, they argue, we will likely ourselves become a bi-product of our own excesses.

Pictures: galleryhip

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