Feeding the world’s seven billion people has never been more urgent, or more difficult. One in every eight persons today goes hungry, according to the United Nations World Food Program. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization projects the global population will add 2.3 billion people by 2050, further increasing the market demand for food. Yet, agriculture in the 21st century faces tough challenges. More food must be produced by a smaller rural labor force to feed the expanding population. Agriculture-dependent developing countries need fair payment for their products and labor to support accelerating growth. More efficient, eco-friendly production methods must be utilized to conserve natural resources. Finally, food producers need to adapt to climate change, which is disrupting planting, growing and harvesting activities. The enormity of these challenges necessitates working throughout the lifecycle of food products and systems to increase sustainability and decrease unwanted environment impacts.
Julia Ruedig, Erb ’15, believes more can be done to reduce inefficiencies and improve the sustainability of America’s food system. “Food waste is a big problem that occurs in many areas, including our agricultural supply chains, retail sales outlets ─ and even our own homes,” she says. “Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet for solving this sustainability problem. The solution will require a widespread approach.”
Putting food on America’s dinner tables consumes 10 percent of the nation’s total energy budget, 50 percent of its land and 80 percent of its potable freshwater. Yet 40 percent of the food in the U.S. today goes uneaten ─ the equivalent of more than 20 pounds per person every month, according to a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The increasing amount of waste is particularly troubling at a time when one in six Americans lacks a secure supply of food. Read more
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the United States in 2011 generated 32 million tons of plastic waste─including 14 million tons of containers and packaging, 11 million tons of durable goods such as appliances and 7 million tons of nondurable goods, such as plates and cups. Yet, only 13 percent of the plastic packaging waste generated that year was recovered for recycling. The rest─approximately 12 million tons─ended up in the country’s overburdened landfills.
That trend disturbs Raphael (Phel) Meyer, Erb ’13, who recently co-founded BizeeBox, an entrepreneurial business venture dedicated to stemming the growing tide of trash and reducing its environmental impacts. The immensity of the waste problem, he says, is “mind boggling.” Finding a solution to this environmental juggernaut is not easy, however. Read more
The environmental movement’s support for local food systems has grown exponentially in recent years, spawning a national wave of interest and investments in food hubs, farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants and locally based food processing. Communities, such as Grand Rapids, Mich., have spent millions of dollars to build year-round downtown public markets that bring farm-fresh produce to city dwellers’ doorsteps and revitalize languishing low-income neighborhoods.
Ethan Schoolman, Ph.D., ’13, sees this phenomenon as a positive outgrowth of concerns for the environment, equal food access, population health and economic development. Yet, he notes, relatively little research has been done to quantify the anticipated environmental, social and economic benefits of these investments. Questions remain about whether local food systems do in fact contribute to environmental and social sustainability. Read more