Friday, May 13, 2011

Wasted, Man

When my daddy was a little boy, his mama used to tell him to finish up his meals, "because there are people starving in China." His response was, "Can we just send it to them, then?"

Now that I'm a parent myself, I see a lot of unfinished meals at the family table. Which is why I got a twinge of First World guilt when I saw this UN report that says roughly one-third of the global food supply is wasted. And guess where most of that waste comes from?

Consumers in rich nations waste a combined 222 million tons a year, according to the report. That's almost as much as all the food produced in sub-Saharan Africa. 
The report puts much of the blame on retailers in rich nations that throw out food simply because it looks unappealing, and the food industry's 'all-you-can-eat' marketing tactics, which encourage consumers to buy more than they need. 
"Perhaps one of the most important reasons for food waste at the consumption level in rich countries is that people simply can afford to waste food," the report states.
Poking around a bit more, I found this report that pegs food waste in the US at 27%, and then estimates the wasted energy embedded in all that food production. It amounts to around 2% of all energy consumed in the US annually, or – am I reading this correctly? – 2 quadrillion BTU a year.

At a minimum, this points out the need for more extensive municipal composting programs. As far as my father's question about sending food to where it's needed, that's where it gets complicated. Matthew Yglesias has blogged about this from time to time, and points out in this post that
The same primary crop yield can either support a lot of vegetarians or else it can support a lot of cows and the cows can feed a small number of meat-eaters. And by the same token, meat-eaters feeding themselves off pork or chicken consume much less grain than meat-eaters feeding themselves off cows. The point is that even if we have no increase in crop yields whatsoever, global agriculture is still producing plenty of calories to keep 10 billion people alive and well-nourished. The reason people starve and are malnourished is the distribution of those calories, not their existence, and that will continue to be the case in the future.
Speaking of feeding the world, NPR's Marketplace looked at the subject of sustainable agriculture a few days ago, which provoked a torrent of responses. The original story sampled a type of contrarian, hard-headed "realism" that argues the world just can't afford sustainability. The "Wonk Room" over at ThinkProgress skewered that type of argument when it popped up at WiReD magazine recently. As they pointed out, you can only make such claims when you fail to factor in the carbon footprint embedded into agribusiness production:
oil exploration and refining, coupled with the carbon footprints involved in the manufacture of the fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides demanded by conventional agriculture... the transportation of these components of factory farming from manufacture to feedlot...the manufacture and transportation of hormones and antibiotics... the carbon footprint involved in the cleanups from the toxic runoffs from feedlots; the carbon footprints of cropdusters. You get the picture.
Of course, this just brings up the larger point that, food politics aside, this country wastes a huge amount of energy.
66% of the energy produced for electricity is lost, 10% of that in transmission.
71% of the energy produced for transportation is wasted.
20% of the energy produced to run American industry is lost, and
20% of the energy that we use in our commercial and residential buildings is wasted.
The ludicrous nature of the "debate" we have over climate change, is, again, only possible if you studiously turn away from all the savings we have lying around in the form of potential conservation and efficiency improvements. Far from imposing burdensome costs on industry, this would pump money back into the economy even while saving your grandchildren's climate. Win-win. Who could argue against it? Don't answer that.

This larger energy question is something that Amory Lovins has been talking about for years - for instance in 1989, 1993 and 2009. If you want to help him talk sense to the slow learners in the elite countries, his work is more vital than ever.

As the authors of the UN report noted, we waste all this energy... because we can. But how much longer can we afford to do so? To ask the question is to answer it.

PS: If you want some good news about combatting Third World malnutrition, there's always the Peanut Butter Project.

PPS: If the above doesn't have enough links for you, this ThinkProgress page from 2008 has enough blue pixels to keep you busy through your next couple meals.

1 comment:

  1. Efficiency is resisted at a grassroots level. Every time you improve efficiency the unemployment lines get longer and the bonuses get bigger.