HOCHBERG: Food for Thought

While many children do not buy their parents’ “there are starving children” argument as a reason to eat that last bite of broccoli, the tired adage makes even less sense in the context of current food-waste trends.

Developing countries account for roughly half of the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted annually, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The tendency is to see resource waste as a purely First World problem or a product of rampant American consumerism, but the truth is more complicated.

Reducing food waste in our own country is a noble goal, but it will do little to put food on the plates of those hungry children in countries like Haiti and Niger. Instead, the best way to prevent widespread starvation in Third World countries is to beat the problem at the source. Taking relatively simple on-site measures will improve efficiency in the areas with the most widespread nutritional deficiencies.

Not only is large-scale food waste a humanitarian issue, it can also destroy a country’s economy in a multitude of ways. Authors John Mandyck and Eric Schultz, who co-wrote a book on food waste, estimate that more than 800 million people worldwide are continuously hungry. That number is equivalent to the combined populations of the United States and the European Union.

A nation’s aggregate economic success depends on its ability to produce goods and services, but a weak, starving workforce tends to yield very little. When poor transportation and storage measures destroy produce before it even reaches a store, the producer’s costs per unit sold increases. This chronic inefficiency helps no one; it only drives a wedge between the producer’s profits and the consumer’s benefits. The biggest instances of waste often occur before food even reaches a vendor. But basic transportation improvements can go a long way in addressing the problem.

Even teaching farmers to move fragile fruit like tomatoes in boxes instead of cloth bags would fix a lot of the most egregious problems, according to Mandyck and Schultz. Better refrigeration before and during shipping would cut down immensely on the quantities of perishables that spoil daily in countries that cannot afford to those kinds of loses. Of course, new technology can be cost prohibitive in highly underdeveloped regions, but it would quickly pay for itself in the form of increased production with few long-term upkeep costs.

Lack of proper storage and refrigeration destroys food in both stores and individual homes. Particularly in the case of economic actors with extremely limited resources (like starving households), non-governmental organizations, such as UNICEF, could play a crucial role. These organizations have the potential to drastically improve the conditions of the developing country’s poor by gifting them inexpensive, individual refrigerators.

This action would have a multiplying effect, indirectly helping those without refrigeration. As less overall food is wasted, more food becomes available at lower prices. As for the stores, NGOs or governmental agencies could effectively eliminate investment costs in the long run by offering loans, which would be relatively easy to pay back due to the predictable increased profits resulting from increased refrigeration.

In December 2014, the United Nations vowed to try to end world hunger by 2030. The organization will only be able to do so by implementing strategies where the problem is at its worst. Merely sending food over to the poorest nations may work for short-term crises, but it will do little to foster lasting improvement. Instead, on-site improvements in how food is moved and kept will allow individual nations to make better use of what they are already producing.

Even though solutions to these problems are local, thriving nations are still obligated to help where possible. Many food-saving programs require at least an upfront investment, if not an unconditional gift, which is a massive burden for NGOs to bear in every country. Individual countries will have to finance many of these improvements via the taxation of their own people.

But in the end, the trade-offs are worthwhile. Improved aggregate population health will boost worldwide production of goods and services — and that is something that will benefit almost every participant in the world market.

Gracie Hochberg is a sophomore in the College. By The Numbers appears every Friday.

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  1. Thank you Ms. Hochberg for bringing attention to the very serious problem of needless starvation. Having read this column as well as your column on the refugee crisis in Europe, I am eager to learn more. Refugee and food crises have been ongoing problems from time immemorial. Perhaps for a future column you might explain something of their histories.

    Historically, what has been tried, what has succeeded, and what has failed? How are today’s conditions, both in a broad sense and on the ground, similar to or different from conditions in the past?

    In short, the solutions you offer sound reasonable. Why hasn’t anything worked?

  2. Hello again–in my comment I forgot to check the box so I could get alerts to any responses. Can you please sign me up for that? Thanks.

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