In millions of households, restaurants and other locations across the United States, food is discarded, lost or wasted.
Elsewhere in the country, about one in eight people struggle with hunger and simply want something to eat, even though the world is producing enough food.
The dichotomy is great. The National Academies of Sciences states that more than one third of the food produced in the U.S. is unconsumed – an “unacceptable loss of food and nutrients” at a time of heightened global food demand. That one-third amount of food lost or wasted applies to the world as well.
There are fruits and vegetables, plus roots and tubers, seeds, meat and root crops wasted or lost. And that doesn’t just occur from kitchen to trash. The problem “extends throughout the supply chain, from the initial agricultural production to final household consumption,” and amounts to 1.3 billion tons a year, says Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Food Loss and Waste
There’s a difference between food loss and food waste. According to the FAO, bananas that fall off a truck, for instance, is considered food loss. But if a food is fit for human consumption but is not eaten, that’s waste.
Those food losses and waste are among the growing food challenges, never mind the obstacles to get food at all: weather, floods, and drought.
Looking to the Future
But the NAS is looking beyond the natural into the intellectual space: the need for greater advances that uses data sciences, technology, behavioral sciences, and economics, it says.
The NAS identifies what it calls the most promising scientific breakthroughs that are possible to achieve by 2030 that, it said, would increase U.S. food and agricultural industry’s sustainability, competitiveness and resilience.
NAS envisions and calls for scenarios in which soil and crop sensors could provide continuous data that feed and alert a farmer about moisture content not only for an area but for a specific group of plants, “eliminating the need” to irrigate an entire field. It foresees gene editing to accelerate breeding in microbes, plants and animals, or crops that could be effectively modified to improve taste and nutritional value. Gene editing refers to a technique in which researchers can control traits of certain plants by removing some DNA.
The country, and the world, has no choice but to promptly re-examine and step up its innovations to maintain a food supply, as NAS sees it.
“In the coming decade, the stresses on the U.S. food agricultural enterprise won’t be solved by business as usual – either in the field or in our current research efforts,” said Susan Wessler, Neil and Rochelle Campbell Presidential Chair for Innovations in Science Education, and co-chair of the committee that conducted the study and wrote the recent report.
The NAS says developing highly sensitive, field deployable sensors and biosensors will enable rapid detection and monitoring capabilities across various food and agricultural disciplines.
Applying integrated data sciences, software tools and system models will enable advanced analytics for managing the food and agricultural system, the NAS says. NAS officials call for establishing an initiative to exploit the use of genomics and precision breeding to genetically improve traits of agriculturally important organisms.
“Understanding the relevance of the microbiome to agriculture and harnessing the knowledge will improve crop production, transform feed efficiency and increase resilience to stress and disease,” the NAS says. Microbiome refers to the micro-organisms in the living environment.
Through gene editing, and other techniques, steps can be made to thwart some of the food loss and waste.
“Incorporating essential micronutrients or other quality-related traits in crops through gene-editing tools offers an opportunity to increase food quality and shelf life, enhance nutrition and decrease food loss and food waste,” says NAS’s pre-publication report.
While there have been advances in agriculture techniques and through technology, much more needs to be done, NAS says.
“The food and agricultural system collects an enormous amount of data, but has not had the right tools to use it effectively,” the report says. “Data generated in research laboratories and in the field have been maintained in an unconnected manner.”
Evolving sensing technology also is important and not quite where it should be right now, it says. Sensing technology refers to the practice of using a device to measure different environmental elements, ranging from heat to motion to light.
“Sensing technology has been used widely in food and agriculture to provide point measurements for a characteristic of interest, such as temperature, but the ability to continuously monitor several characteristics at once is the key to understanding both what is happening in the target system and how it is occurring,” according to the report.
NAS recommends initiatives that should be created “to more effectively develop and employ sensing technologies across all areas of food and agriculture.”
The committee’s other co-chair, John Floros, president of New Mexico State University, said, “Realizing the vision this report recommends will require a holistic approach that combines scientific discovery, technological innovation and incentives to revolutionize the way we approach greater food security and human and environmental health.”
The group concedes that it may be necessary for significant public and private investment to accomplish the plans.
“The food system of tomorrow will depend on how well we are able to prepare for resiliency today and how well we are able to build our capacity for the future,” the report says.