We waste too much food because too many people are starving


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AmeriCorps VISTA member Katherine Spears collected leftovers for a community composting program in Lexington.

AmeriCorps VISTA member Katherine Spears collected leftovers for a community composting program in Lexington.

The world will soon face unprecedented food insecurity, exacerbated by a looming agricultural crisis and food waste. The numbers are already overwhelming. Almost every third person in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food in 2020. Here at home, Kentucky has the highest rate in the United States of food insecurity among adults ages 50-59 and Ranked 15th among states for food waste. As climate change and global conflict increase, these numbers will continue to rise.

We can slow or halt the rise in food insecurity by tackling agricultural and food waste. New techniques and technologies have created an opportunity to address this challenge now, and we must seize it.

Food waste is just that: food that is not eaten but thrown in the trash, and that comes from a variety of sources, but mostly your own trash. Whether it’s expired food or discarded leftovers, food waste contributes 30-40% of the national food supplywhich creates over 108 billion pounds of waste or enough food for 130 billion meals each year.

“When you talk about food waste, it’s not just the actual food that goes to landfill,” Commissioner Ryan Quarles, head of the KY Department of Agriculture, said earlier this month at an event in Concordia Lexington, “You waste the manpower, you waste the manpower waste the transportation costs, you waste the fuel and sweat capital—everything that goes into getting that crop from the farm gate to someone’s plate.

Programs to combat food waste are on the rise. The University of Kentucky, for example, launched a food waste composting plan in the summer of 2019 with the goal of diverting at least as much waste as it sends to landfill. Kentucky also fights food waste with legislation Initiatives like HB237 from 2017, which protected organizations that donate food that would otherwise go to waste from frivolous lawsuits. The Kentucky Department of Agriculture also buys food that would otherwise rot in the fields and donates it to food banks. Approaches like these are critical to reducing the amount of food that ends up in landfills instead of finding its way into the stomachs of hungry people.

Paula Henderson

Agricultural waste is generated before the crop is even food. It includes waste material from farms, including farms, poultry houses and slaughterhouses. All farms produce waste. The challenge in eliminating this waste is finding new ways to use these materials and reducing the amount of materials that go into food production in the first place.

Food manufacturers use reuse and recycling programs reused waste vegetation into alternative products such as skin care items and food packaging. These uses allow companies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create new product categories.

Other materials such as pesticides and fertilizers can be – and should be – restricted. These materials create harmful runoff that can cause unwanted growth downstream of weeds, algae and other harmful vegetation and pollute local water sources.

The irony hurts. As more food is produced to feed the world’s growing populations, the water sources for these populations are becoming acidic, leading to birth defects and other complications.

As changes in our climate continue to contribute to reduced food supplies and inhospitable conditions for growing crops in certain areas of the world, increases in agricultural production in other parts of the world are contributing to increases in greenhouse gases and pollution of ecosystems due to an abundance of agricultural waste.

At the same time, a crisis of man-made proportions is threatening the food supply of an entire region. Recently the UN Secretary-General warned that the war in Ukraine could soon be the cause of hunger in Middle Eastern regions dependent on Ukraine for grain.

As the world continues to grapple with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that our supply chains and existing infrastructure are highly vulnerable to disruption, with nothing more fragile than our food production ecosystem. Climate change, regional conflicts and agricultural waste put pressure on the food supply chain.

Today, it is more important than ever to use technological solutions to reduce the impact of stressors on the food supply. Eliminating waste is one step. Using technology to improve waste reduction and reuse of agricultural waste products will reduce the natural impact of increased food production on the food supply chain. It is imperative that we improve infrastructure to process food waste and remove these materials from landfills, where they decompose and produce greenhouse gases.

We must also use data collection and analysis to curb the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers. Smarter crops and smarter soil conservation can reduce the need for harsh chemicals and reduce the amount that ends up in our food and nearby water supplies. We must make these tools more widely available to developing countries and encourage migration away from the use of polluting chemicals.

We only have one planet, and the number of people charged with preserving it is ever increasing. The threat is real and urgent, and the solutions are within reach. We must come together to keep them busy.

Paula Henderson is executive vice president & chief sales officer for the Americas at SAS, the leading analytics software company based in Cary, NC. She was one of the keynote speakers at the Concordia Lexington Summit.


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