With the global population set to hit 9.5 billion by 2075, it’s widely assumed the world is eventually going to run out of food. One UN study says we’ll need to increase agricultural production 70% by the middle of the century, if we’re to cater to all the expected bellies.
But, before you imagine the problem is a simple lack of nourishment, you might want to read a comprehensive new report about food waste. It suggests that, instead of a production issue, as such, the real "food crisis" revolves around poor distribution and storage, and careless consumption.
The report, from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a U.K. membership group, says we currently waste between 30% to 50% of all food generated—or up to 2.2 billion tons annually. In other words, we could make up much of the projected shortfall just by being more efficient.
"The potential to provide 60–100% more food by simply eliminating losses, while simultaneously freeing up land, energy and water resources for other uses, is an opportunity that should not be ignored," the report says.
The food waste problem varies according to the development level of the country. In fully industrialized countries, waste tends to occur further up the chain: with supermarkets that reject crops for appearance reasons, or consumers who buy too much and never use it. One U.K. study found that fully 46% of potatoes never made it to market; another found that 30% of all vegetables are never harvested. In the developed world, the problem—if it can be called that—is that food is too cheap. Market signals seem to be insufficient to make sure people don’t waste it.
In sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, wastage is more likely to occur at the farmer-producer stage. "Inefficient harvesting, inadequately engineered local transport systems and deficiencies in infrastructure mean that crops are frequently handled poorly and stored under unsuitable farm site conditions or in inadequate local facilities," says the study.
"As a result, bruising, moulds and rodents destroy or at least degrade large quantities of food material, and substantial amounts of foodstuffs simply spill from badly maintained vehicles or are bruised as vehicles negotiate poorly maintained roads."
Southeast Asia loses an estimated 37% to 80% of its rice crop, depending on the country. China’s losses are about 45%, for example, while Vietnam’s are at the higher end, the report says.
As other studies have said, the issue doesn’t begin and end with food. Unnecessary production also means wasting vast quantities of water and energy, increased emissions of greenhouse gases, and the tearing of land that could be used for other purposes.
As you might expect for a report by engineers, the recommended solutions lie in engineering fixes: for example, transferring "engineering knowledge, design know-how, and suitable technology to newly developing countries, and getting governments "to incorporate waste minimisation thinking" into transport and storage infrastructure.
All of which makes sense. More fundamentally, perhaps, we need to decide what kind of food crisis we face. As the report makes clear, it’s not so much a food issue, as one related to logistics and consumption.