We need to come up with new approaches to feed a hungry planet.

In a recent article in NPR’s The Salt, reporter Allison Aubrey makes the case that many people in the world today are malnourished and do not get enough fruits and vegetables. And, the problem is only going to get worse. In fact, according to a study in The Lancet Planetary Health, “If everyone around the globe began to eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, there wouldn’t be enough to go around.”

What Will We Do When There’s More People to Feed?

Not enough to go around. And that’s today! Imagine when there are even more people to feed. The Earth’s population is expected to grow from 7.5 billion today to 10 billion by 2050. The article states that only 55 percent of the world’s population lives in countries that have enough fruits and vegetables to meet the World Health Organization’s target of a minimum 400 grams per person, per day. It goes on to say “the researchers project that by 2050, an estimated 1.5 billion more people will live in places with insufficient supply – unless challenges such as food waste and improved productivity are solved.”

People that don’t have access to healthy food instead are forced to (or willingly) eat less healthy diets. Another NPR article Bad Diets Are Responsible For More Deaths Than Smoking, cites a Lancet study that says 11 million people die each year due to poor diets. It says “As a planet we don’t eat enough healthy foods including whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. At the same time, we consume too many sugary drinks, too much salt and too much processed meat.”

Feeding a Hungry Planet is Also a Sustainability Problem

Our global problem with unhealthy diets is not only contributing to poor health and disease, it also poses environmental sustainability problems.

The NPR article states “Ruminant livestock (including cattle, sheep and goats) use an estimated two-thirds of all the land dedicated to agriculture and contribute about half of the greenhouse gas emissions linked to agriculture. Demand for meat is growing as more people, in more countries, can afford it. But the report concludes that cutting back on ruminant meat consumption could have a significant impact.

Currently, agriculture uses nearly half of the globe’s vegetated land – and at least 30 percent of all cropland is used to grow feed for animals. The resource intensiveness of meat production is a leading cause of deforestation. If current trends continue, a World Resources Institute report estimates that we’d need an extra 593 million hectares – an area that is almost twice the size of India — to feed the population in 2050.”

Eat More Chicken?

Not to harp on beef lovers around the world but, for many of us, we need to rethink our love affair with beef. Should we all stop eating beef? Not necessarily. According to a World Resources Institute blog 6 Pressing Questions About Beef and Climate Change, Answered “If ruminant meat consumption in high-consuming countries declined to about 50 calories a day, or 1.5 burgers per person per week—about half of current U.S. levels and 25 percent below current European levels, but still well above the national average for most countries—it would nearly eliminate the need for additional agricultural expansion (and associated deforestation), even in a world with 10 billion people.”

That should make the folks at Chick-Fil-A happy.

How Do We Better Feed a Hungry Planet?

“Current diets are detrimental to both human and planetary health and shifting towards more balanced, predominantly plant-based diets is seen as crucial to improving both,” according to the Lancet Planetary Health Study.

But, if we aren’t currently aren’t growing enough fruits and vegetables to feed today’s population, how will be able to provide enough fresh produce to feed billions more?

The article suggests three approaches:

  1. Increased investments in fruit and vegetable production
  2. Increased efforts to educate people about the importance of healthy diets
  3. Develop new technologies and practices to reduce food waste, since about one-third of food we produce is wasted

Reducing Waste by 50 percent or More

What causes food waste and how can we prevent waste to enable us to feed a hungry planet? As noted in our previous blog, we often buy more food than we can eat, or we purchase food for dinner and then decide to go out to eat and the food sits in our refrigerator and ultimately spoils before we can consume it, leading to waste. But we can also make sound, well-planned decisions and still find that our fruits and vegetables spoil before we can eat them…sometimes the day after we buy them.

This is because a large part of the food waste problem relates to issues in the fresh food supply chain between harvest by the grower and delivery to the grocer. Time and temperature have the greatest impact on the freshness of produce. When harvested, all produce has a maximum amount of shelf-life – the amount of time it will last if stored in perfect conditions.

For example, if you pick a strawberry and put it on your dining room table at room temperature, it will last for two or three days. But, if we refrigerate it properly, it could last for 12 or 13 days. That’s it’s freshness capacity.

But post-harvest variability negatively impacts that freshness. A general rule-of-thumb is that, for every hour produce sits in field heat, it can lose a day of shelf-life. Sometimes, due to labor challenges or equipment problems, produce can sit in the field for several hours. Maybe it’s early in the morning and 60 degrees. Maybe it’s the middle of the day and 90 degrees. The issue becomes that every pallet of produce may have experienced different conditions that lead to shelf-life variability. Two pallets harvested from the same field on the same day may have very different shelf-lives, one with 12 days because it was handled perfectly, the other with six days because, through no fault of the grower, it got delayed or had handling problems.

Variability is a fact of life in agriculture. If left unmanaged, it leads to premature spoilage and waste.

But freshness management solutions, like Zest Fresh, can provide information and real-time insights to help growers, suppliers and retailers manage the variability. We can, for example identify issues that delay the cooling of pallets and enable workers to fix issues and identify “at risk” pallets. We can also determine the actual dynamic shelf-life of each pallet and then intelligently route them to the best destination – a pallet with seven days of shelf-life that ships locally and another pallet with 12 days of shelf-life can go across country.

We’ve proven that this approach reduces fresh food waste at the retailer by 50 percent or more. That makes a lot more fresh food available to consumers and helps to feed a hungry planet.