Over the past two years, academics have started turning attention to the connections between food waste and food insecurity. They are acknowledging that globally, forty percent of food is wasted and that this limits the amount of food available to feed a ballooning population (expected to rise to nine billion by 2050). Interestingly, this acknowledgement provides a robust counter-argument to the common tirade touted by agri-business—that genetic engineering and agricultural intensification is the only option to serve future food needs. Instead, this new research indicates that the puzzle of adequate food production has long been solved. We currently produce enough food to feed 10 billion people—why continue chasing unnecessary goals to increase yields? What we instead need to do is attend to food chain inefficiencies.
While the literature examining food waste in relation to food security provides a much-needed and legitimate alternative to tired agribusiness claims, it is still nascent. The work published so far does not adequately draw out the logic between the two issues. Relating them only cursorily can encourage belief that addressing food waste will automatically resolve the challenge of rising global hunger—a dangerous assumption indeed.
Instead of seeing them solely as problems, there is a growing tendency to frame massive food waste issues as opportunities to ameliorate hunger.
For example, many reason that if less food were wasted early along the supply chain (in production, processing, storage, and transport), more would be available on market shelves. But with little research demonstrating how this would affect economics of supply and demand, we cannot assume that this food would become affordable to those who need it. So lowering levels of waste may not necessarily impact levels of hunger. When the primary cause of hunger is poverty, increasing availability but not affordability will do little to ameliorate levels of food-insecurity.
A long food supply chain creates many opportunities where food is wasted.
Further along the food supply chain (retailing and food service), “recovery” charities allow us to view food waste as an opportunity for hunger-alleviation. “Recovery” refers to work done by food banks and other charity-based emergency food providers to rescue food as it nears the end of its life, and to redistribute it for free. A related initiative is “gleaning,” where volunteers gather produce left in fields after harvest. These programs provide critical services to prevent some food waste and to provide meals to those with tight budgets, but they cannot keep up. Charity-based, volunteer-run, resource-constrained programs working independently at a small-scale do not have the capacity to reconcile the massive structural issues of food waste and food insecurity.
Both of these examples illustrate how food waste is increasingly being viewed as a food security solution, but in a too-simplistic way. Food waste is inextricably associated with food insecurity, and it is uplifting to see attention swing toward waste reduction rather than intensification as means to cope with the food needs of a burgeoning population. However, academics must not draw a facile equation between potentially available food and hunger solutions. Waste and hunger are two structurally-rooted issues. Solving them requires a systems-shakeup, and equal attention paid to both—not just a vague notion that increasing supply chain efficiency will automatically provide food for the world’s most vulnerable.
That is why we need to take cues from smart partnerships that allow for holistic, multi-scalar approaches to this twofold problem. One example is the powerhouse team here at the University of Guelph. Dr. Evan Fraser, who has devoted his career to the challenge of feeding nine billion hungry mouths by 2050, pairs with Dr. Kate Parizeau, a food waste expert who also devotes much of her academic career to issues faced by marginalized and poverty-afflicted populations. Dr. Parizeau works with Dr. Mike Von Massow, from the restaurant and hospitality industry and a champion of food waste initiatives, as well as Dr. Ralph Martin who is a national leader in sustainable agriculture. They work with municipal government to examine food waste at a household level, so this combination creates a team that sees the whole picture of food waste from production to post-plate, but importantly, through a social lens of global food insecurity and poverty.
We need more work like this. At the recent National Assembly of Food Secure Canada, 450 food security advocates, leaders, and practitioners gathered—yet the negligible conversation around food waste seemed a lost opportunity. Groups such as Food Secure Canada, which bring together a diverse cocktail of food systems actors working from the “grassroots” (community) to the “grasstops” (policy) provide ideal fora for working through this complicated relationship between waste and hunger
In face of complex issues, the emerging literature misleadingly distills the message to “solving food waste will solve food insecurity.” These two wicked problems require partnerships. It is through such partnerships that we can employ realistic, multi-scalar solutions on the ground and with policy to remedy the inappropriate structures upholding food waste and food insecurity. This new direction away from agricultural intensification and toward food efficiency is an exciting, positive new direction to tread toward a food-secure 2050. Keep your eyes on it!
Follow @feeding9billion, @kjhodgins and this blog. Choose your own comfortable spot on the food supply chain to work toward tackling waste, with the concept of hunger-alleviation top-of-mind. Get involved in your food policy councils, or contribute your energies to Food Secure Canada.