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Good Topic and Summary -
on December 1, 2009
Tristram Stuart is an energetic and talented individual who has turned an early hobby, thinking about food waste, into a life-consuming passion. Unfortunately, his data and associated conclusions are sometimes limited, but he makes up for that with honesty and common-sense. Stuart begins with a U.N. estimate that the world's agricultural land may decline in productivity by up to 25% this century, thereby making food availability a serious matter. (Worse yet is the projected growth in world population from its current 6.8 billion to 8.9 billion by 2050 - a 31% increase.) Stuart believes that about half of the world's food is wasted, though some of that is debatable - eg. feeding leftover human foods to farm animals, 'growing' biofuels. Regardless of the precise amount, as Stuart points out, the food waste is considerable, and this also wastes energy and adds to global warming.
Sources of waste exist all along the food chain. For example, farmers may grow 25% extra to ensure meeting contracts (and avoid expensive penalties) with acceptable volume and quality, large numbers of fish are thrown back (most die) because they are too small or the wrong species. Stuart goes on to point out that farmers lose additional amounts, especially in third-world nations, due to inadequate storage, lack of refrigeration, and exposure to sunlight. Food packagers and retailers create more waste through largely aesthetic standards and overstocking (especially at smaller stores) to avoid potentially lost sales - eg. minimizing the appearance of 'picked over' shelf-stock. How do aesthetic standards create waste - some packagers (eg. Birdseye), per Stuart, prohibit the resale of rejected product, or require it to be used for animal feed. "Sell-by" dates add more losses (I always pick through Twinkies to get the newest). And finally, U.S. and European consumers, especially single-individual homes, throw out even more. (Stuart also considers as waste the amount of food that too-many of us consume while overeating.)
Fortunately, remedies are as numerous as sources. Stuart notes considerable cultural differences - eg. Uighurs in western China are serious of making good use of food, while the Chinese Hans living in the same area see overfilling plates as being hospitable. In general, Stuart picks Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea as examples of cultures that waste much less food; it is tempting to suggest that North Korea probably is way ahead of even those three nations, but that would indeed be in poor taste - it is, a reminder, however, of the topic's importance. Farmers in the U.S. tend to band together and/or use futures markets more than their European counterparts to handle the risk of not filling sale contracts; other helpful tactics Stuart found included shaving down non-aesthetic carrots into 'young' carrots, micro-loans to provide spoil- and rat-proof storage, and selling vegetables rejected for appearance to caterers. (The latter is a bit funny - you're pay more at many restaurants, for cheaper vegetables, and to help avoid waste!). Stuart has also found that vending via Farmers' Markets reduces the volume of appearance out-grades. As for fishermen, changing the hooks used, the type of line (single long-line with multiple hooks, vs. many short ones), net construction and composition, and stopping the killing of sharks for their fins helps reduce needless loss of fish, and turtles, dolphins, and albatross as well.
Bottom Line: "Waste" is an easy, informative, and credible read about an important topic.