Not too long ago, I had a job in the produce department of a supermarket. One of the first things you learn working in such a place, is just how much food is wasted on a daily basis. Mind you, this was a very profitable store. It’s not like we had fully stocked shelves and no customers. No, it was simply an unavoidable fact of life, that tons of food would be thrown out every week. On a busy day like Friday or Saturday, we could stack a pallet eight feet tall with the stuff that was thrown out from the produce and bakery departments.
Most of the time the food wasn’t even spoiled. The customers didn’t like buying produce that was at its peak ripeness. So if we didn’t take it off the shelves, it would sit there until it did spoil (Some of the best tasting produce I’ve ever had was the super ripe stuff we had to throw out). Of course, the customer only played a small role in this wasteful system.
Lots of food had to be disposed of before it ever reached the shelves. We would receive shipments of spoiled food on a regular basis, and the manager of our produce department had the incredibly daunting task of trying to predict the future. Every day was a struggle to guess how much of any given product we would sell, and order the produce accordingly. Even guys that had been doing this job since before I was born struggled to get their orders just right, so empty spaces and spoiled food were a daily occurrence.
Then there was another added layer of unpredictability when it came to our distributors. Sometimes we’d order exactly how much we knew we would need, and instead they would send us half that amount. Sometimes we would receive double or even triple what we needed, and as expected, it would sit in the backroom and rot. By the time I left that job, they had an automated computer system taking over some of the ordering duties. Honestly, I have never seen shipments come in whose contents were so far removed from reality. I’ll take a human over a machine any day.
There is an oft quoted statistic that roughly a third of the food that our world produces is thrown out rather than consumed. In case you’re wondering, that’s 1.4 billion tons of food every year. Since the average well fed human eats around 4lbs of food every day, that’s enough to feed 1.9 billion people. That’s more than double the 842 million people who are chronically malnourished. I’ve witnessed this waste first hand, and when I think about how many people in the world are starving, it’s heartbreaking to see just how much of it has to be tossed in the trash.
As unbelievable as it sounds, there is no myth behind that statistic. Recently Popular Science put out an article with a great infographic, that clearly conceptualizes the wastefulness of the global food system.
The image not only breaks down our food waste by category, but shows how much food is wasted in each step of the distribution process. Unfortunately, the solutions provided by the author fall of short of truly fixing our food distribution network. Roughly speaking, these included:
- Better food labeling by putting a “spoil date” on the product rather than a sell by date.
- Improving road networks in developing nations so that food would reach their destinations faster.
- Better cooperation between farmers and processors, so that farmers know the exact amount of seeds to plant each season.
- And better communication between distribution and the supermarkets.
I believe all of these measures would have some success in alleviating food waste, but they all involve trying to repair and improve an already failing system. It’s all fine and good to talk about improving the infrastructure of third world nations, but first world nations have nearly the same amount of food waste.
We should ask ourselves, is the food industry really interested in putting a “spoil by” date on their products, when they make more money from customers who throw out good food? And of course there should be better communication between farmers, processors, distributors, and supermarkets, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. If it were possible it would have happened already. I think these systems are actually becoming worst over time. There’s too much money to be made for those who control the preexisting system.
The more entrenched globalism becomes in our world, the less efficient it will be. That’s an indisputable fact of systems and social organization. The bigger it gets, the more complicated it becomes. The more complicated it becomes, the less efficient it runs. Not to mention that these vast and sophisticated systems of commerce and distribution are extremely vulnerable to disruption, as preppers know all too well.
I think those of us in the prepper movement, alternative health movement, and natural food movement, already know the solution to this problem. You can see it very clearly in that infographic. That image reveals the same undeniable fact that I learned working in a supermarket. There is loss in every step of the distribution network. The farmer doesn’t know how much to grow, the processors don’t know how much to make, and the distributors don’t know how much to order and send out.
In between every one of these steps is a truck that picks up goods from a warehouse, and can’t help but deliver at least some the product in a damaged state (When I worked in produce, receiving damaged goods was an almost daily occurrence). So to hell with the distribution network. The answer is to grow our own food, or buy our food from other locals who are growing it. The closer you are to the food source, the less waste there will be. What little is wasted, is easily composted and put back into the system.
If there’s one thing we shouldn’t trust to an overstretched global distribution network, it’s the food we need to survive. Not only is the system rife with waste, but it is obsessed with GMO’s and pesticides, and is extremely vulnerable to disruption. The sooner we can rely on a local food network, the safer (and healthier) we’ll be.