1.3 Billion tons. It’s hard to conceptualize exactly how much food actually goes to waste, globally, each year. One-third of the food we grow each year ends up in landfills around the world. In the U.S. alone, that means that every second, an amount of food equal to the weight of a sedan gets thrown away. 

According to theJournal of Sustainable Agriculture, the world’s farmers already grow enough to feed a global population of 10 Billion. So why do 1 in 7 people around the world face hunger and food insecurity daily? And, even more importantly, what can we do to change that fact? According to some recent reports, eating more grains may be the solution. 

Understanding the food waste problem

A recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) summarizes the current state of food waste in America. Their findings reveal that “Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten.”

Not only is this problematic in terms of waste, but also how that waste further impacts the climate. Most of that food ends up rotting in a landfill. There, it belches methane into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. 

The report goes on to look at where these food losses occur in the supply chain. It breaks down losses by category: grains, seafood, fruits and vegetables, meat, and milk. Their findings could change the way climate- and waste-conscious eaters fill their plates. 

It’s hard to understate the complexity of the problem. Looking at the economics of the issue alone requires us to confront an uncomfortable truth: the more food consumers waste, the more the food industry can sell. Plus, comparatively, the consumer cost of food loss is insignificant. Many families budget less than 10% of their incomes to food. 

Breaking down the supply chain

The supply chain is every step food goes through to get from the farms to our forks. That means how food is grown, harvested, processed, produced, and sold. But when it comes to food waste, we can’t stop looking at what happens once the food leaves the shelves. We also have to factor in consumer habits and patterns. 

Loss occurs in every step along the supply chain. And those steps include production losses, post-harvest, handling, and storage losses, processing and packaging losses, distribution and retail losses. Finally, we look at consumer losses. 

Eating more grains combats food waste in the fields

On the farming level, we can break food loss down into two categories. First, there’s the food that never gets harvested. There’s also food that goes to waste between harvest and final sale. Because it’s difficult for farmers to gauge ahead of time what the demand for their crops will be, food losses occur in the field and orchard. Not just because of pests, weather, or other spoilage, but also because of economic factors. 

Unfortunately, with recent changes in the economics of global trade, we’re seeing unprecedented losses. As of a 2018 report by Reuters, grain farmers faced a difficult decision: harvest and sell at a loss, or let them rot. With elevators already chock full of grains—and tariffs preventing overseas sales—farmers will continue to see these sorts of losses in the coming years. 

So what are the benefits of plowing under a crop? As the NRDC notes, it’s “not a complete loss, as nutrients are returned to the soil. However, it still represents a lost opportunity to provide nutrition and not the highest use of the water, energy, and chemicals used to grow those crops.” 

It’s just a fact that economics impacts every food producer—from meat and dairy producers to orchards and cereal producers. However, grain farmers can sidestep many of the other issues that create food waste on the farm level. Issues like labor shortages and an inability to sell “ugly” produce don’t necessarily apply to crops of soybeans, oats, wheat, and rice. 

Eating more grains for sustainability

Because they require fewer natural and economic resources to grow, grains are more sustainable than a lot of alternatives. Studies show that grains are some of the least water-and energy-intensive foods to produce. This despite being nutritionally-dense and chock full of micronutrients that don’t naturally occur in other food sources. They’re energy-dense, easy to grow, and safer to store year-round without spoilage.

Post-harvest and packing losses

Perhaps one of the areas that grains prove most sustainable in terms of food waste is in the post-harvest and production phase of the supply chain. According to the same NRDC report, “Once crops have been harvested, culling is the primary reason for losses of fresh produce.” Culling means throwing away food products based on its appearance, which can impact saleability. Farmers typically cull based on size, color, shape, weight, and any visible blemishes. 

“One large cucumber farmer estimated that fewer than half the vegetables he grows actually leave his farm and that 75 percent of the cucumbers culled before sale are edible. A large tomato-packing house reported that in mid-season it can fill a dump truck with 22,000 pounds of discarded tomatoes every 40 minutes. And a packer of citrus, stone fruit, and grapes estimated that 20 to 50 percent of the produce he handles is unmarketable but perfectly edible.” — NRDC report

Of course, this inability to sell edible but “ugly” food isn’t all the farmer’s fault. Instead, it’s a responsibility shared by farmers, grocery stores, and consumers alike. And it’s something that we’re starting to see addressed on the consumer level. Companies like Imperfect Foods are cutting out the supermarket middleman and delivering this “unmarketable” food directly to consumers at a steep discount. 

Similarly, The Rotten Fruit Box has made it their mission to keep fresh, delicious produce from rotting in the fields. This company works with small farmers to freeze dry fruit that would otherwise go to waste, and ships freeze-dried snack pouches to doorsteps around the world. 

Manufacturing losses

Looking at the report, it might seem that grains stand out as having the highest losses during the processing phase. But it’s important to note that the percentage here accounts for the removal of both edible and inedible portions of foods. This trimming at the processing stage includes the removal of by-products. That could mean removing pits from stone fruit or bones and organs from animal products. 

When it comes to grains, there are a few manufacturing processes the whole grain often undergoes. For example, pulses go through dehulling, puffing, grinding and splitting prior to being sold for consumption. As such, the study notes that lack of clarity over the definition of food waste by manufacturers (as distinct from by-products) “makes this estimate fragile.” So it’s likely we’re losing a great deal less edible grains than the estimated 10%.

Shelf-stable and easy to ship

But the most significant advantage to eating more grains is their shelf life. Leave a bunch of bananas in the cupboard for two years, and you’ll open the door to an ecosystem of rot. But whole grains like rice, oats, and quinoa can stay on the shelf for years without going rancid. Even processed whole grains—flour, cereals, cracked grains—can last as long as two years. Plus, because you don’t have to worry about bruising or rot, grains are easiest to pack, ship, and distribute. 

But what about a well-rounded diet?

Now we’re not saying you should go all-in on eating more grains and forgo fresh fruits and vegetables. We’re talking about the ways your purchasing decisions can lead to change on a more systemic level. And in a world where grains have become villainized, we have to understand the consequences of those food choices. 

Not only can you keep perfectly edible fruits and vegetables from going to waste by joining a co-op or supporting companies like Imperfect and Rotten Fruit Box. You can also support sustainability by questioning modern “truths” about grains and grain consumption. 

Increasing accessibility and reducing food waste through affordable grains

Despite the massive scope of the global food waste problem, solutions start with small, conscious steps. Eating more grains is a huge step towards a more sustainable food systems. They’re a resource-efficient, nutrient-dense, and accessible food source. Plus, by supporting small and local grain farmers like Northerly, you’re not just preventing losses in the field and on the shelves. You’re also helping us give back to local communities. You can learn more about our give-back program here


food paranoia
gmos, bill nye, science guy