Do we need to produce more food when we throw so much away?

February 2013

I work 3 hours a week and can feed a voracious family! Ask me how!
Discarded food salvaged from a skip in the United States
Photo by gabriel amadeus on Flickr
British families throw away 7 million tonnes of food, worth more than £10 billion, in a year.

On a global scale, a recent report estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of food produced annually (that's 1.2-2 billion tonnes each year) never reaches a human mouth. It's wasted in the field, wasted in transit, wasted in storage, wasted in the shop, or wasted in the home.

This means that, in a world where one in eight people goes to bed hungry every night, we're actually already producing enough food to feed them two to four times over.

Along with all that uneaten food, goes wasted labour, wasted soil nutrients, and wasted precious water (in some South East Asian countries up to 550 cubic meters of water is wasted producing rice which is never eaten).

In the developing world, potential food vanishes during inefficient and damaging harvesting methods, exacerbated by a shaky transportation system. After that, damp, leaky warehouses sacrifice the crops to mould, insects, birds and rodents. And trying to mesh with the global-scale multinational-driven food and feed supply system doesn't help.

In the west which suffers none of these infrastructure inadequacies, we seem to suffer instead from ignorance, fussiness, and a lack of common sense. The supermarkets tempt us to buy more than we can use with large bargain pack sizes and buy-one-get-one-free offers: this accounts for a staggering 17 billion wasted portions of fruit and vegetables a year in the UK alone.

Customers have been trained to use the supermarkets' over-strict (self-protective) 'sell-by', 'use-by', and 'best-before' dates to ditch food by the calendar, no matter what condition it's in. Food quality has become a question of (irrelevant) regularity of size, shape and colour, or the attractiveness of the picture on the package, or the success of the manufacturers' front-of-pack hyperbole. So much of our food is adulterated with false tastes, smells, colours and preservatives, we can no longer be sure what we 'e eating, much less whether it's fit to eat.

Ready meals and pre-prepared veg have not only killed the art of domestic cooking but deskilled us in converting left-overs to the next meal and a judicious approach to purchasing.

On the farm, supermarket contracts now rule the crops: growers must over-produce to ensure their contracts are fulfilled, or risk losing them with no alternative markets to fall back on. Fresh produce which doesn't meet the size-shape-colour standards is chucked (as many as 30% of UK vegetable crops are not even harvested on cosmetic grounds).

The author of the food-waste report is calling on governments to introduce better technology and food storage facilities in the developing world, and to introduce policies to reduce waste by supermarkets and consumers in countries like Britain.

As the US Organic Consumers' Association points out, the numbers in the report don't reflect the 157 million tons of cereals, legumes and vegetable protein fed to livestock in American factory farms to produce just 28 million tons of meat. If even a third of the world's cereal harvest were diverted to humans instead of animals, 3 billion people could be fed.

And no one's mentioning the cereals which become biofuels to feed cars.

On a related note, another report just released has highlighted that, in the UK, the genetic potential for yields of modern (conventional) wheat and oilseed rape varieties is not being fulfilled due to poor soil conditions, sub-optimal agronomy and the weather.


The UK with its long history of agriculture, agricultural research and agricultural colleges have no excuse for not achieving best practice, and no excuse at all for wasting resources on GM research to 'improve' its crops, when it doesn't know how to grow the ones it has.

Like all our other food and feed crops, 30-80% of GM crops will be wasted: a temporary few percent increase in yield of a few crops won't help feed any one except the biotech industry. Add to this, the huge sums of money being channeled into quick-fix GM 'solutions' which are incapable of solving even a single one of the above food losses, are simply another drain on our limited resources.

If we want to produce substantially more food, then where to start is clear: promote local, practical education of farmers, promote technologies to ensure optimal local growing conditions are achieved, and ensure that local transport and storage infrastructures are sound. We can't do anything about the weather, but healthy crops will always be hardier than sickly ones. (See ROUNDUP MAKES PLANTS SICK - April 2011.)

At home, hands-on education about efficient food purchasing, preparing meals from scratch, using alternative ingredients, and food-storage and preservation methods seem to be desperately needed.

Supermarkets must be made responsible for monitoring and eliminating the food waste they cause in the field or in the home.

All this will cost money, but the outcome will be a sustainable solution to our suggested 'need' to produce more food and our consequent 'need' for GM crops.


Besides countering to any claims you see in the media that 'we need GM to feed the world' with a few choice words about waste-no-want-not, check out Action Aid's campaign 'Enough Food for Everyone' at

  • Etan Smallman, Half of all food goes to waste, Metro, 10.01.13
  • Nick Collins, We throw away half our food, Telegraph 10.01.13
  • Waste Not, Want Not: Half of World's Food goes to Waste, Organic Consumers' Association Organic Bytes, 17.01.13
  • Eleanor Mills, Put it down sweetie, and get cooking, Sunday Times, 3.02.13

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