July 25, 2006 | General

What To Do About Food Loss?

BioCycle July 2006, Vol. 47, No. 7, p. 32
Final article in series calls for creation of a national center to address food and systemic food loss as a public policy issue.
Timothy W. Jones

MY EARLY Oklahoma childhood memories are filled with woodland excursions guided by family and community elders. I was shown how to dig a host of roots, pick fruits and greens and observe the habits of wild animals. Lessons on constructing traps, digging implements, bows and arrows and other tools were included.
As a child, it was just fun but I was being taught a way of life that showed me both the way of the past and a way to assure the future. Sustaining this knowledge for thousands of years has served many purposes for my people, the Western Cherokee. The ability to survive has been one of the most significant benefits. No matter what has happened to our people, we have always been able to use this knowledge to exist until another day.
Today, Americans are losing their cultural knowledge, especially as it pertains to food. But short of learning how to hunt game and gather seed, I argue that the country needs to have a center to address food and systemic food loss as a public policy issue. I base this on my decade-long food system study and from my personal experience.
Once the chief occupation of Americans, agriculture is now the domain of less than two percent of the population. The United States excels at producing and certainly consuming food. The irony is that few people know “how” to produce food and little about how it functions in the human biological system.
Just a few major natural or human made shocks to key points in our food system could have catastrophic results. I doubt if we could resurrect a food system like the “victory gardens” that supplied sorely needed fresh vegetables in the early years of World War II. The American and Allies efforts to meet supply needs early in the war might have failed without that food. Americans would do well to heed the lessons of the Western Cherokee.
Nearly half of the food ready to harvest never reaches our mouths. Food loss begins on the farm and continues through processing, retail, home kitchens and ends in the landfill. The reasons for food loss are many and varied, as have been covered in previous articles in this series (see sidebar for complete list). Some of the losses are easily managed. It is a problem that we need to address. The consequences of continuing in our present path are ugly.
Food loss poses a threat to national security. If our fresh food supplies were harmed, a food loss reduction program could extend the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables by a month or more while new sources are developed. Currently no workable plan exists.
Food loss is eating away at our food growing capacity, energy sustainability and our environment. It took fertilizer, water, soil nutrients, pesticides, herbicides, diesel and gasoline to produce that food. Then there is the electricity and fuel required to run the storage warehouses and to transport the food to retailers. Retailers consume huge amounts of energy to sustain frozen and cold storage to preserve the precious crops. The waste of energy resources (fertilizer, many pesticides and herbicides, diesel, and gasoline are produced from oil) is staggering. Food loss at this level is not sustainable from economic or resource perspectives. Reducing food loss would take us a long way toward a sustainable food growing capacity.
We are already suffering from the loss of food knowledge in our culture. Food loss and other food issues such as obesity arise from the fact that Americans, even those in the food industry, have lost touch with food, what it is, how it functions in sustaining life and its role in the “cycle of life”. People who acculturate the “cycle of life” have fewer food issues. Economically, food issues are taking their toll costing the American economy well over $200 billion annually.
A national Food Center would assess the multitude of issues and coordinate efforts among producers, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, consumers, government agencies and trade groups. An early childhood education program could serve as the core program. An informed population can understand and enact nutrition, food safety, food conservation and related programs. The outcome would benefit all of society.
The agricultural division would work with farmers, processors and agribusiness associations on developing predictable demand and harvest data, reducing harvest losses and improving storage. An academic division would gather information from the scientific community and assist other scientists in developing additional studies and strategies, as well as provide information to corporations, government, agriculture and the public.
Other specialists could advise processors, distributors and retailers about ways to reduce losses, a major drain on the profit margins of many businesses. They would aid the government in developing plans and programs to assure the security of the country’s food system.
Even with all of these efforts food loss will still occur. A food loss recovery division would implement policies and programs to gain the best use of these losses. The division would promote food recovery, composting and organics to energy projects.
A Food Center will strive for a coalition of all forces who have an interest in food. And out of this coalition, we will be able to reduce many of the country’s food issues. The changes would positively impact us all. It is truly a “win, win” situation for all Americans.
Dr. Timothy Jones is an adjunct professor at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona in Tucson. He can be contacted by email at

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