On Food Waste

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When boomers were kids, their parents got them to eat their peas by wagging their fingers and intoning that "there are people starving in China." And they were right. Millions—perhaps tens of millions—of people died the in the Great Leap Forward famine of 1959-61. Over the ensuing decades, Western eco-activists have stoked this primeval guilt complex continuously, arguing in true Malthusian fashion that the ratio of the Earth's food supply to its population is always near-critical. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich proclaimed in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." Less than a month ago (November 2017), fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an alarmist Warning to Humanity that included an appeal to "reduce food waste through education and better infrastructure."

In North America the season of peak food moralizing falls between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when our gratitude for bountiful nature does indeed seem to be top of mind, and when the urge to allay the hunger in our midst is greatest. Not for nothing did Charles Dickens end A Christmas Carol with the miserly Scrooge sending the fattest turkey in London to Bob Cratchit. Just this week, writing in the New York Times, journalist Somini Sengupta implored affluent North American consumers yet again to stop wasting so much food, citing a U.S. Department of Agriculture bureaucrat to the effect that "people don’t value food for what it represents." Same guilt trip, different century.

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But where do we actually stand on global food security? According to the World Bank, we have been making astounding progress. Less than ten percent of the world’s population today lives in extreme poverty—down from 37 percent in 1990 and 44 percent in 1981. Just last year a group of agriculture and trade ministers met in Rome under the auspices of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (F.A.O.) to discuss the world food supply. They reported that 793-million people remain undernourished, and that two billion are not getting enough micronutrients. But the trend-lines continue to move entirely in the right direction. F.A.O. data show that "large food supplies have resulted in prices moving at lower levels." Over the next dozen or so years, commodity prices (meat, dairy, cereal) are expected to remain low and stable—optimal conditions for the expansion of the regional trade flows that have revolutionized food distribution in the developing world. What this means is that, barring the unforeseen, the F.A.O.-led 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is on track to end "extreme poverty, hunger and all other forms of malnutrition."

This is a redemption narrative on a truly Dickensian scale, but it is no cause for complacency. The achievement of global food security is within our collective reach.