Daily Archives: June 21, 2008

There’s No Excuse for Food Shortages in the Developed World!

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of agflation – and the worst of it hasn’t even hit Canada yet as we’re able to grow a lot of the basic foodstuffs we need (given our relatively large abundance of land). However, some of the larger retailers have started rationing how much of certain products, like rice, that you are allowed to buy at any one time, for example, and I’m thinking it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

And it shouldn’t be. Not only do we import more than enough food, but we have the potential to continue to produce sufficient food for the global population for years to come. The solution, at least in the mid-term, is quite simple.

  1. Stop Wasting Food
    The US wastes over 20B in food each year.
  2. Stop Wasting Food
    Poor quality monitoring leads to extremely wasteful recalls.
  3. Stop Wasting Food
    Way too much food is diverted to energy inefficient bio-fuel.
  4. Stop Wasting Food
    Crop yields are lower than they need to be globally because the right knowledge and technology takes too long to be applied.

Lets start with (1). According to this recent article in the Economist, nearly 20B worth of food was dumped by retailers in the US alone because of their inefficiency – that’s somewhere between 8% and 10% of “perishable” goods being wasted in the US alone each year – a ratio that’s almost twice that of European retailers! Considering the investments made in inventory-management software, cold-storage, and other supply chain paraphernalia, this is ridiculous.

Why are things so bad? Too much food is imported, which means that food has to travel further, and this increases the risk that it will rot in transit. American grocers are poor at predicting demand, as most don’t even capture and analyze basic transaction data. And American grocers have an unhealthy enthusiasm for huge displays and a wide range of produce – which almost guarantees waste since the huge displays won’t sell and the customers will be overwhelmed with choice.

What they should do is take a lesson from Stop & Shop which reduced the size of boxes and the number of products on display by almost a fifth. Not only did this initiative reduce waste by a third, but, since the chain was able to focus on insure the produce it did carry was as fresh as possible, it improved customer satisfaction. And the initiative is only two years in … meaning that better results could be coming.

Let’s move on to (2). How many recalls for spinach and beef alone have we heard about in the past year alone? Too many! And how much food is wasted as a result of a single recall – when only an extremely small amount of the food is actually tainted? Tens to Hundreds of Millions of dollars worth of food – or, in some cases, enough food to feed a country the size of Canada for a week.

And let’s not forget (3). On average, it takes over 6 barrels of crude to produce 8 barrels of ethanol … for an energy gain of 20%, if we’re lucky. To put this in perspective, if the average North American stopped driving like a road warrior, we’d achieve the same gain. (Driving 15 over the limit with the gas pedal to the floor every time you hit a hill can easily decrease fuel efficiency by 20%.) The answer lies in better engines, better power plants, and more efficient use of fuel – not in wasting food.

And, finally, in reference to (4), there’s the fact that we have developed very efficient methods of farming, crops that grow faster while being more resistant to drought and insects, and better methods of harvest, storage, and distribution – but have done little to ensure that these methods reach the countries, and farms, where they are needed most. What’s the point of having a World Community Grid that IBM and the University of Washington are going to use to develop stronger and more nourishing strains of rice if the YouTube generation can’t get off of FaceBook long enough to realize it exists.