Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Can famine be solved by food scraps?

I was listening to our local NPR station this morning and the guest (Norman Myers) on the show, Population Growth and Environment, made the comment that the famine problem in Africa could be solved by reducing the food wasted in Western countries.

The gist of the comment was that the waste from food manufacturing all the way to our own food waste (food thrown out) could be packaged up and sent to Africa and solve their problems there. He didn't elaborate much more and the host didn't press him on it, but that rang some huge bells in my head.

What do you think based on this statement? Do you think famine could be solved if we just weren't as wasteful with our food?


Crafty Farmer said...

I haven't yet read this book, but it's on my list:

It might shed some light on this issue....

Rivenfae said...

I really don't think it would make much of a difference as even if we stop being wasteful; as that extra food would still need to find a way to those in need. Just because the west stops wasting food it doesn't mean it will get to where it would need to go.

I think it is more on making sure those who need the food get it, that really is the only way to stop hunger. also teaching the countries that have the worst hunger better growing practices. ...but not being wasteful in the west isn't going to solve it...

Kate said...

It would ring many bells in my mind too. I recommend the book Twelve Myths About Hunger if you want to understand the fundamental issues around global food insecurity. I will say that the idea of sending our waste food elsewhere is fairly ridiculous. How would said waste food get where it's going without spoiling in the process? There's no means for said process that wouldn't be incredibly resource intensive. A better strategy, though by no means a panacea, would be to drastically reduce food waste in the west, thereby lowering demand for food on the global market, which would in turn lower global prices for food. A much better (though still only partial) fix would be to stop putting food in our gas tanks. When our cars compete with their children, our cars win.

lisa said...

My mom told me that 35 years ago: Eat all your food because there are people starving in Africa. (To which I'd respond, Give it to Them then, for which I would receive a spanking. )

We shouldn't waste less in order to feed more. We should just waste less. Period. We are a wasteful, overindulgent society and I don't think that will Ever change. Never mind the waste from the Making of food--how about portion sizes? Restaurants that serve up dishes no normal human could finish? (We always take our leftovers and give them to someone on the street. Which, IS basically feeding someone from waste.) I used to work at a chicken restaurant and we would throw away tons of good food every night. It was all fresh, but went into the can. I lived in a neighborhood with a lot of homeless people, poor people, etc. I'd sneak out as much of the food as I could--make sure it was in plain wrap--and give it to people. I would have been fired if I'd been caught.

People here shouldn't have to eat my leftovers or food that was trashward bound. People in Africa shouldn't have to eat food that we sweep up off the floor. We produce enough food to feed half the damn starving world and we just Should feed them.

Adrienne said...

Yeah, no, it's not exactly feasible to send my leftover half eaten lasagne to Africa or where ever. I don't know enough about food manufacturing to say for sure but I'm guessing most of the stuff that gets tossed in the process is also perishable- it would take a ton of energy to freeze and ship and then once it gets there the people recieving it likely have no means of preserving it.

I do have strong feelings about how much food gets wasted in this country, but this is not the answer of how to fix the problem.

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Our diets are too varied for this to be a viable solution. And to ask Africans to adapt to the western diet, which is killing us slowly by the way, is paternalistic and immoral.

Jody said...

I think gardening is the true link between wasted food and global hunger.

Is food ever really wasted? It always composts no matter where it's thrown. If I'm right about that, then the waste is not in throwing it away, it's in failing to throw it back into into the same soil it grew from. Food waste is a blessing for the new crop!

There you have it then, gardening is the key that links waste and hunger. If only everyone could plant a garden, eat from it, return waste to it, eat from it again, then hunger would be eradicated.

Robj98168 said...

How many times did my mom tell me- There are thousands of starving children in China who would give anything for that food. Usually said it when it was something I didn't like- but still the point still rings true.

Aimee said...

What he might have meant was that we waste enough food to solve the hunger problem in AFrica, if all of our waste were somehow magically made available to the Africans: not that we literally ship them our food garbage. I can't imagine anyone seriously proposing that, for infinite reasons, the main one being not caring to get excoriated as an incredibly ignorant racist.

It seems likely to me he was just making a rhetorical point. I just aught the tail end of this program, by the way, and thought it was fascinating. Plan to go back and hear the first part.

emmer said...

beyond the valid comments already made, i can think of a couple more.
we direct feed enough grain to livestock to feed the starving. of course we won't feed them because they can't pay for it.
there is also the awful truth that all species in the presence of plentiful food reproduce more than when food is scarce. in a really macabre way, feeding can make more hungry people instead of less. how can we deal with that? especially in light of the current congress's push to reduce global birth control? i suppose the long term "fix", if there is one, is empowerment to women. educated women may have economic power in addition their reproductive powers. they may have more control about how their bodies are to be used.
but that doesn't help much right now.

Tanya said...

I think its more of a distribution issue than a wastage one.

Brad K. said...


What comes to mind, is to determine the percentage wasted at each stage, and rolling all the wastes back to initial harvest. Then gather that "waste" part, and send it overseas.

By diminishing the domestic market (reducing by the total wastage amount) you free up scads of food that can be stripped from our markets and economies, and ignoring that there will always be some waste in every process, you get to swipe from the (hated?) rich/affluent/gots too much food, and gift it to the poor oppressed masses. Sorry, I drifted off into bitter cynicism there.

But seriously, local food security is going to be the answer. Shipping food, whether for sale to the wealthy or as aid to the needy, takes energy -- cheap energy. And that means that generating industrial-quantity surpluses over here and shipping it will-he, nil-he over there, is *not* going to be sustainable even in the short term. For one thing, boat loads of cheap resources showing up in impoverished or resource depleted regions will *create* warlords and governmental corruption. For another, no industrial process will continue if the results of that process are continually stripped away for purposes other than sustaining the industrial process and it's owners.

No one that plants a garden to have the city take 3/4ths of everything that matures will continue to garden, neither will a farmer or industrial agriculture enterprise.

Letting the market place -- actual demand -- determine the price and amount of food produced, locally, would have an important benefit. Less shipping around of food and less production of unneeded food would lower energy used to produce and transport food.

@ emmer,

About feeding grain to livestock. Imagine a world without useful amounts of oil available at a price that makes it accessible; Orlov posits that countries that export could decide, fairly soon, that ceasing to export would be in their best interest, and the availability of oil could disappear in an astonishingly short time.

So, no useful amounts of oil -- that might mean very few plastics. Historically, leather was used for a number of things, from footwear to door hinges and even clothing and protective wear like gloves, etc. That means raising, and harvesting, livestock.

Imagine there are no trucks, not for domestic food transport. At least, not at a cost that would be useful. In the past, you could walk your cow or pig to the butcher; hauling the equivalent calories to the mill, without said livestock, would be burdensome. Could it be said that the industrial revolution, the cheap energy of coal and oil was really the demise of slavery as an economic choice? So, what happens in the post-industrial world, of everyone eschews livestock?

Just looking around, it seems that many successful 'adapting' gardeners cherish the contributions of livestock to the fertility of their garden.

Yes, I have seen the 2500 gallons of water for one pound of beef. Or is that for the whole cow, and using the one pound (you couldn't have gotten that one pound without the rest of the cow) makes for a colorful 'fact'. But how much of that 2500 gallons is from flowing creeks and streams -- that empty into the ocean, thus the actual consumption of what the cows drink doesn't really matter a drop in the ocean?

Not all cows are raised in feed lots, in industrial agricultural practices. Not all are a danger to neighbors and wildlife, nor do they poison the water table and nearby watersheds.

If you really want to show that livestock is unneeded, I understand that medieval Poles made footware from birch bark and rags. Maybe there are more birch trees near you than around my house.

Mimi said...

I think it is a issue with many layers
Food is going into our gas tanks..yes
Tons of grain to feed animals to produce food for western meat heavy diets...yes

American Gov subsides push down food prices that when we export to poor counties the food is so cheap that farmers in those nations can't compete and don't...yes

With war and corruption in many may end up with the rich and the well armed eating and those who aren't conitue to go without..maybe yes

This layered on the need for consitant access to water

So may answer is no...keep the food scraps compost and try to stave famine here as the worlds middle class raises and wants to eat a more western diet...and hope that our homesteading ways become examples food security
for all
Plus who wants to always be getting America's hand-me-downs...maybe this does more harm than good no matter how well intentioned

Mimi said...

About leather and this extreme need for animals if we don't have plastics...I am sure there are some vegans out there that could hook-up a pair of birch bark and rag shoes that would make Tim Gunn and receycled tires come to mind...simple shoes...seriously we have more than enough waste in landfills and else where as well as the ingenuity to think up non animial non plastic solutions for our needs..that if our needs stay the same needs change with time also...(ex)I no loger need plastic bags becuase I have upcycled clothe bags

Brad K. said...


I know that we aren't looking at a future of all leather clothes. But I am minded that an astonishingly large proportion of our cloth today is the result of cheap-energy enabled industrial processes, which depend on international transport again using cheap energy to make the product accessible in price and quantity.

Before the industrial revolution, natural fibers and cloth were expensive in human labor and in economic cost. As for what is in land fills, that is all gone as thoroughly as if burned. If you mean what is being discarded on a daily basis, much of what I see being sold today won't be contributing much to reuse and extended wear. I fear that just as we lack the cheap energy and economic resources to get much use out of proposed alternative energy resources, we also lack the cheap energy and economic resources to revert to local cloth and natural fiber security. At least, as a society we lack the wherewithal; individuals can take up shearing sheep, spinning wool and other natural fibers, weaving cloth and knitting and crocheting. But in the past this has taken one or two adults all year to keep basic clothes on a family. I am not convinced that the experience and skills needed to transition to local cloth security -- or leather, for that matter -- is in place.

Positing that 'we can find an answer' overlooks that there are problems that have been looking for solutions for a long time: Is there travel faster than the speed of light?; If "spent" radioactive reactor cores are so hot and dangerous -- why isn't there a use for them as community heat sources, or other strategic and industrial use?; Why do the peas in my garden grow like anything, and the beans struggle to keep their tattered leaves intact?; The US is a capitalist nation, so why is this administration so anti-business, and why do they exceed the boundaries of the Constitution with impunity?; Why aren't the adapting, transition communities using county fairs as they were originally intended, as competitions to find the best processes and techniques for each unique location, and to spread that knowledge to all producers in the region?

Forty or fifty years ago some wag noted that landfills were accumulating metals and rare earth substances vastly more abundantly that similar amounts of raw ore, and that the needed smelting or recovery should for those substances should be much cheaper than separating them from their native rock. The most re-use I have seen of landfills, is the amphitheater they built over one in San Jose, and that had a problem with spontaneous methane fires (back in 1989).

I don't know that we can count on any technology or industrial process solutions that will answer any problems, before the effects of our current debt deflation, punitive regulations, and impending restrictions of cheap energy from peak oil/peak coal, etc. preclude using the answer.

I don't agree the main premise of 'stop feeding grain to livestock'. I don't think you can rely on producing as much grain as in the past, with the currently changing weather patterns. I don't think you can rely on cheap energy and cheap transportation to get the increased amounts of grain to the people you expect to serve, at a cost and energy expenditure that is sustainable.

JMG (Archdruid Report) makes a compelling case for the energy cost of railroads being sustainable. The problem I see is that so much of the US railroad system has been dismantled, and now only a very small portion of the US is actually served by rail, unless you include the cheap-energy enabled trucking system that ties the rest of the nation together.

In short, I don't believe that a non-livestock approach is supportable or sustainable.

Brandie said...

One thing food waste can do is feed chickens and pigs, in small-scale home and urban/local production. That would take some pressure off grain resources, in which chickens and pigs currently compete with starving people. All that is required is an adjustment of American cultural and legal norms, allowing small-scale urban livestock. It is not a complete solution I'm sure, but might help.

Brad K. said...

@ emmer,

This morning I find a disturbing reference to the 'eat less meat' discussion,

According to this one article, 'eat less meat' is a government guideline. I hadn't realized that it was government assumption that created the topic. And that like so many facts and directions from the government, 'eat less meat' is based on inconclusive evidence, and may be a direct cause for the national obesity outbreak.

At a time when the government is a direct cause for unemployment and economic stagnation if not deflation, questioning assumptions by the government has to be a survival trait. I don't advocate anarchy (no government), but quiet acceptance of "the government must be right" got us where we are today, with lack of preparation for peak oil, for climate change, for economic difficulties, and for perpetuating pseudo-science based on political choices.

Remember the Adkins diet, that helped a few of my neighbors get a handle on their overweight problem?

But then, I recall my grandmother and her "If you cannot eat a raw potato, you aren't hungry." And there was the line from WWII homefront propaganda, "Have you eaten your pound of potatoes today?" (They were trying to free up wheat for shipment overseas.) I have seen an admittedly fictional reference to the Roman legions, (way, way back!) marching on boiled grains, entirely meatless.

I don't know the answer. I do know that livestock, cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals, even horses, can and have filled important niches in American and world history, and that raising livestock well, providing facilities and training and the support crafts from feed to shearing to butchering, are lifetime skills that too few Americans today, including farmers, are familiar with. Especially as current industrial agricultural practices have to be replaced with more sustainable and more local practices.

Greenpa said...

My head hurts.

No smiley.

Crunch, you've found another beautiful example of what I call "Academic Inflation."

Most folks have heard discussions about "grade inflation" in high school. And college. The tendency for grades to drift up towards all A's, as the years go by, with no concomitant increase in the educatedness of the students. Less well discussed is the simple fact that this goes on across the board, and the world of experts and PhDs today include a lot of individuals with a small fraction of the education, understanding, or intelligence, required of PhDs 50 or 80 years ago.

Sharon over on Causubon's Book had another great example a couple days ago; the "experts" who seriously state for public consumption that the answer to the population problem is adoption.

My response there referred to another weird bit of clueless nonsense you can find bandied about in the world hunger discussions:

"Sorry, but to me "adoption is the answer to the population problem" carries exactly the same weight, and the same indication of the speaker's intelligence, as "quinoa is the answer to world hunger!"

The catastrophe in Fukushima could be viewed as another; a highly complex problem being overseen and responded to by intellects incapable of grasping the situation at all.

And the many "fixes" being touted for our health care processes. "Just do this one thing, and everything will be fine!"

Part of the problem is that we don't know how to respond effectively when someone mouths absurdities. The reporter here could have, maybe should have, responded "But that's absurd. How could you possibly justify, let alone pay for, the energy costs involved in collecting the food; processing it into something storable, shipping it across an ocean, then distributing it in a continent without efficient transportation? Ridiculous, really!"

But, since none of us respond well to that kind of rudeness; the asinine opinions are allowed to pass; to be picked up and repeated by other hopeful ninnies, and it takes on a life of its own.

Incidentally; also missing from this nifty suggestion is the fact, documented in that same food waste report, that the Africans also "waste" 1/3 to 1/2 of the food they already have around them. Much of that due to that same lack of effective transportation; and lack of energy to dry and or process food into something storable.

sigh. It does not bode well for our complex civilization.

Hazel said...

Greenpa, I read that a huge amount of food in the developing world spoils in storage. Developing decent storage doesn't sound as glamorous as creating some GM super-crop though, does it?

I do wonder if Aimee has a point, knowing nothing about the programme or the man spouting the opinions, saying that the US (like most other Western countries I would imagine) wastes by quantity enough food to keep a developing nation going sounds plausible. Or is that expecting too much and he really did expect people to email half a meal deal to Africa?

Emmer- I believe that the birthrate increase when life expectancy is poor- people need a greater number of children to ensure that some will be around to care for them/earn a wage. When life expectancy increases (the modern developed world) the birth rate decreases.

Kate- thanks for the book recommendation. I'll have a look for it.

Marie-Josée said...

Apparently 50 % of the food grown in the U.S. goes to waste, and up to 30 % of that 50 % is food left to rot in the field, because it does not meet our expecting standards. Famine is a complicated issue and politics, not just poverty or climate issues, are keeping Africans hungry. There are a lot of despots using famine and poverty as a weapon to keep their civilians in check. That being said, I think food waste in North America is a scandal, but sending our food to Africa is but a short-term solution. Of course, if it can save people's lives NOW, it needs to be done. We need to reduce our use of land here, focus on sustainability and let the ecosystems revitalize. We can help the Africans by providing tools, technology and clean forms of energy so that they can produce their own food, with their own cultivars.

Brad K. said...


The Bible talks about gleaning -- folks with immediate needs following the commercial interests as they harvest a crop.

When harvesting bunches of bushels of a crop, you race the weather and other risks, and focus on getting the most removed from the field in the least time. That means that some small part (maybe as much as 10%?) gets left, as being uneconomical to go back and pick up. Some stems break, there are wet spots that the general harvesters -- human or machine -- need to skip, to meet quota expectations.

Gleaning, going back to pick up a meal or three, your time and effort comes from a different "budget", and you can afford to gather those areas with unprofitable yield, or that fell to the ground. You can make effective use of poorer grades of 'goodness', too.

When I lived west of Phoenix, AZ, some years back, one of the food pantries had a deal to glean after some of the local farms. When they could get folks to actually walk the fields and gather, they got tons (I think, literally) of vegetables, with the farmers' good will and blessings.

The problem I have with concerns about all this is the difference between harvesting and gleaning. We toss around concepts about "feed the world", rising food prices, and exporting tons of grain, but these are all aspects of cheap energy -- harvesting. Getting production localized moves the profit margin closer to "get it all, 'cause we can afford to pick it all up." If food isn't produced locally, you are depending on cheap energy to move vast quantities of food over long distances -- and depending on industrial style agriculture to grow and harvest that crop, and you are depending on the cheap energy that makes industrial style agriculture possible.

My father raised hogs in Iowa. Each farrowing we had some few pigs that didn't thrive, didn't grow as fast as the rest. There was no market for the runts, and no place in the growing and breeding program. They were destroyed for economic reasons. My neighbor, today, is lamenting the field with his winter wheat crop is too wet to mow. The wheat produced so little grain, that even though it hasn't been harvested, the crop insurance has been paid for a 'lost' crop, and now the insurer demands what is in the field, the crop their payment bought, be destroyed.

Don't think too harshly of pork producers, or my father or my neighbor. Anyone keeping livestock has to be responsible to put that livestock down when it cannot be used, or is in terminal pain. The alternative is to waste resources that could have kept other animals, or the family, alive and in good health. The closer you get to subsistence, the more stark some choices really are.

I suspect that anytime you think of food being produced more than 10 miles or so from where it is processed and consumed, you are talking about industrial style agriculture, with it's dependence on cheap energy. Don't confuse the product of industrial style agriculture -- money, and business success -- with food, because the food part is only vaguely related to the business part. What looks like wasted food is actually simple business expense. Unless you organize the non-business aspects of gleaning, and work out an arrangement with the producer. The purpose of gleaning, or other non-industrial style tasks, would be food.

Except a good part of that food pantry exercise appeared to be intended to generate media exposure and raise funds.

Industrial style agriculture is what it is. It is a modern invention to replace vast amounts of human effort with cheap energy applications, and to take part in government-designed business plans.

Gathering the food lost when industrial-style agriculture writes-off parts of production and harvest takes restoring part or all of the human labor that was previously replaced. You would need to abandon the business paradigm for a subsistence paradigm, a very radical change.