I also knew that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations had reported that there is enough produced on this planet to feed the 795 million people who go hungry, and that reducing waste will be key to feeding the 9 billion people who will populate the earth by 2050.
We chase standardization in food the same way the fashion industry chases supermodels. The difference is that grocers can’t airbrush the produce we buy off the shelves. If the banana, the potato, or the carrot isn’t grown to a grocery store’s or processor’s specifications, it’s tossed. If cows yield more milk than a dairy farmer can legally sell in our supply-management system, that milk goes down the drain. Even in the free market, American dairy farmers have been dumping an unprecedented amount this year because of a global glut. The greater the supply, the lower the price—and the more likely it will be wasted.
For thirty years, Second Harvest, the largest food rescue program in the country, has been collecting food that would otherwise be tossed and delivering it to agencies and shelters and food banks to feed hungry people. Every half-kilogram rescued makes one meal. Last year, its fleet of refrigerated trucks rescued more than 3 million kilograms, feeding 100,000 people each month.
That tray of tomatoes Murray described perfectly captures the perverse incentives programmed into the global food-distribution system. Managers down the chain have the ability to penalize their suppliers on the slimmest of quality-control pretexts; retailers can penalize distributors if they don’t like the look of the inventory, and distributors reportedly penalize farmers if crops don’t meet their exact specifications. (Dana Gunders of the National Resources Defense Council in California has estimated that about 7 percent of planted crops in the United States are never harvested—but for some crops, waste can be much higher. This is how baby carrots first came to market: a farmer who found that 70 percent of his crop was being rejected for aesthetic reasons cut his carrots into “baby” sizes and was able to sell them for nearly three times the price.) To avoid such penalties, every player in the system is motivated to reject any batch of food that might contain a trace of imperfection.
Even if all that rejected food were to make its way to rescue organizations or farms, it’s an incredibly inefficient way to run a system. And non-profits such as Second Harvest can save only so much. Their limiting factor isn’t the amount of food available in the Greater Toronto Area. It’s the number of trucks (currently seven) they can afford to operate.
About 95 percent of US food waste now ends up in landfills or incinerators. Half a kilogram of buried food produces about two kilograms of methane, the by-product of anaerobic microbial digestion. Methane, of course, is a greenhouse gas. And because food is 75 to 90 percent moisture, it becomes a toxic soup when left to rot there, leaching into the soil, destroying its pH balance and creating acidified runoff. The very stuff that nourishes us is killing the soil we need to grow it.