In our lifetimes.

I’ve heard these numbers on food waste before, and don’t have any gut feel for whether they’re about right. (Via.) I’ll say what I always say, which is that the pounds of food waste could be huge (millions and millions), and still be a small percentage of the overall foodstream. But I don’t know. Maybe it is noticeable percentage of the foodstream.

If a noticeable percent of the foodstream is wasted, I think that using that making better use of that food has good potential to use less water in ag. Honestly, I think it holds more easy gains than straight up engineering solutions to irrigation techniques. There are still improvements to make on the engineering side of things, but contra the Pacific Institute, I don’t think they free up a ton of water. The three avenues I see for using much less water in ag without fallowing are: decreasing food waste, improving soil tilth, and bio-engineering crops.

The other thing I’d like to point out is that the farmer quoted in the food waste story said that farmers account for a five percent food loss in the fields. Last year, the year of the Communist carrots and the scares about loss of food production from drought, California carrot acreage was down 3%. This year, because of late rains, California carrot acreage is down 11%. But no one is going to go shrieking about rains causing us to import carrots from China. The food threat from the last three years of drought is completely unfounded, less than the annual write-off from harvesting waste (before food gets wasted at every other level of transaction).

Then, because I can’t help hammering home my usual theme, I have to point out that doing stuff like reducing food waste and improving soil tilth is exactly the type of intense management for small gains over widely spread territory that no one wants to do. We’ve exhausted the big, low-entropy sources of water, so if we want more, we have to get it in small bits from ungleaned fields everywhere. We are still rich enough that it is there for the taking. But we’re getting poor enough that we’re starting to be interested in taking what we never thought worth it before. This is what a transition to relative scarcity looks like.

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10 Comments

Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change

10 responses to “In our lifetimes.

  1. A question re: bio-engineered crops. I’ve heard claims that Roundup-Ready seeds are water efficient because they reduce tillage (or whatever) relative to other anti-weed techniques. Assuming that this is in some wise true, is it the case that we’d see more water-reduction gains through the dedicated development of drought-friendly crops? IIRC, there are already very low-water strains of wheat.

    Obviously, fruits can only be so “dry,” but what kind of opportunities exist on this front?

  2. Agnes Varda made a beautiful movie about something that will never happen in America. Sad.

    Gleaning, with a history in important 19th c. paintings, in other places has an old and well-established legal right for those willing to work on the margin. Gleaning has a way of dealing with food waste.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gleaning

  3. Mr. Kurtz

    Good observations, and I’m glad to see someone pointing out that GMO crops can be a huge environmental blessing, not a satanic plot. Aside from the reduced tillage attendant on Roundup-ready and similar technologies (saving fuel as well as water), there are GMO traits in the pipeline specifically for drought tolerance and salt tolerance. The seed companies made an idiotic marketing choice in first introducing seeds that had no benefit to the general population, and are paying the price.

    I was at a conference recently where there were a lot of big-shots in the grocery industry, and the general consensus was that “shrink” (theft and spoilage) in fresh produce was 5%-10%. Better logistics seems to be the key to controlling this. There are many other forms of waste in food systems which are almost inevitable. For instance, last year most growers in California had a bumper crop of processing tomatoes, if they had water. Many thousands of tons were disked under because the industry lacked the processing and harvesting capacity. Yes, a waste; but had the processors invested in such huge capacity as to be able harvest any sized crop, the waste of money and resources would have been greater. A crop like melons or fresh-market tomatoes may leave a lot of great fruit in the field, depending on market conditions.

    Gleaning used to be quite common. I enjoy opening a field to the local community, who are almost uniformly grateful and courteous; but it is a foolish risk for me to take. Our friends in the tort bar stand ready and willing to see that the many injustices (hurt back, baby got a rash, breathed dust, got fat from eating too much) visited on these impoverished victims are speedily and harshly punished.

  4. Guevera

    Re: Kurtz’s comments, gleaning, and liability

    This is going to sound terribly naive… but if farmers are regularly not opening to the public a field that would otherwise be plowed under because of liability concerns, there really should be a legal fix… some sort of shield/immunity provision sounds like the sort of tiny technical fix that lets lawmakers on both sides take credit, pander shamelessly, and burnish their reelection chances. That’s one of the few things the ledge can actually still manage to accomplish in our otherwise totally dysfunctional polity. If it’s a real issue it’s worth bringing up.

  5. Obviously gleaning doesn’t address the scales OtPR’s addressing, or the scales the valley does when it comes to their economy. But there are lots of poor people around in the valley who probably could care less, at least in their immediate situation.

    I have pictures of many hundreds of pumpkins left behind in a single hundred acre Delta field after a harvest. Scale that.

    That Mr. Kurtz is concerned about liability issues is understandable. I sense a public relations opportunity for valley politicians there.

  6. Mr. Kurtz

    There are instances, like operating a nuclear power plant, where the government steps in to backstop the owner from tort liability, but I don’t think farming ought to fall into that category. In fairness, there are a lot of lawyer-tales that rival urban myths when you actually examine the cases. We need some sort of robust tort bar if we don’t want to have Joan Clayborok running around taking our sharp scissors away.

    A couple of other obstacles stand in the way of large scale gleaning: timing is critical in agriculture, and anything that delays ground preparation for the next crop can dog you for a year or more. And there could be some food-safety issues, because traceability in the case of gleaned food that was re-sold would be almost impossible.

    If consumers were a little more accepting of visually flawed fruits and vegetables in the markets, a lot of excellent produce would not be wasted. A lot of chemicals would not be used, either.

  7. Jack London’s _The Valley of the Moon_ spends a lot of time talking about how farmers from poor places — China, Europe — are far cleverer and more productive than Anglo-Saxon farmers; and then goes on to say, more or less, that it’s the Anglo-Saxon right to exhaust one ecosystem and move on to a new one and profit now! This year!

    I kept expecting the main characters to get their comeuppance, but the novel seems to be actually about how, if you’re good-looking enough, you can get away with this. Argh.

  8. If consumers were a little more accepting of visually flawed fruits and vegetables in the markets, a lot of excellent produce would not be wasted. A lot of chemicals would not be used, either.

    This is depressing to read, because I suspected it, but would have hoped it wasn’t, in fact, true – especially the last bit. It’s one devil’s bargain to trade chemicals for productivity; it’s an entirely different one to trade for aesthetics.

    Our regional chain grocer – 100% mainstream – started selling local apples a couple years ago, and the difference in appearance is striking – no wax, occasional flaws. I’m not sure how they’ve sold, but I fear not well – it’s too hard to compete with shiny, picture-perfect apples that are just one bin over.

  9. elizardbreath

    The Valley of the Moon

    I love that book — it is so insane on so many levels. Exactly the point you make, that the protagonist couple figures out how immigrants are more successful farming than ‘Saxon’ stock, because they work harder and more intelligently, and then they reject out of hand the idea of learning anything and go and strike it rich with a brick mine.

    (Also, the bit where the heroine is informed by the mysteriously ethnic neighbor that the key to remaining sexually appealing is crocheting erotic underwear, and learning to play the ukulele.)

  10. Mr. Kurtz

    Some grocers with deli departments take the aesthetically challenged produce and cut it into fruit salads and such. Also, a lot of the pre-cut melons and pineapples you see in plastic pint containers is some of the finest fruit in the store. I can’t speak for the pineapples, but when a melon field nears the end of its commercial life, often special pickers called “gunney-sackers” come in to harvest the field-ripe stuff (what I eat) that would get squashed in conventional handling. The fruit that is too far gone for that is grazed or just disked back into the field. Melon tip: look for a clean dimple where the stem meets the fruit. This means it was ripe enough for the plant to grow an abscission layer (a plant’s way of pushing its babies out of the nest) , and will likely mean good eating.
    The grocery chains (yes, the behemoths Safeway, Kroeger’s, Whole Foods, etc.) are not universally loved, but at least should be commended for their progress in combating food waste. And if high schools still taught home economics, consumers would understand how much money they toss into the trash every day, as well as how easy it is to prepare wholesome meals for pennies.