Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Food Waste Phenomenon

Food security issues are becoming quite mainstream. Over at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, there's a report released on the problem of food waste in the global supply chain. IMechE is a UK-based society, so the interest in food security makes sense; food issues are pretty top-of-mind in the UK.
And it makes sense that engineers--particularly mechanical engineers--would be interested in agricultural issues. The past hundred years of progressive industrialization has occupied the time and intellect of a lot of engineers. And systems rationalization is one of those things engineers do. So taking on the problem of waste is right up their alley.
They certainly recognize the problem:

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands. [from the IMechE website]
With the projected growth in population to 9 billion over the remains of the century, reducing food waste and improving food handling will be essential. The difficulty will be in providing  technically and culturally suitable solutions.
customer-supplied image on Amazon
Which leads us to the Ugly American problem. The Ugly American is a 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer that has since been widely misunderstood.
The novel takes place in a fictional nation called Sarkhan (an imaginary country in Southeast Asia that somewhat resembles Burma or Thailand, but which is meant to allude to Vietnam) and includes several real people, most of whose names have been changed. The book describes the United States' losing struggle against Communism—what was later to be called the battle for hearts and minds in Southeast Asia—because of innate arrogance and the failure to understand the local culture. The title is actually a double entendre, referring both to the physically unattractive hero, Homer Atkins, and to the ugly behavior of the American government employees.
 The "ugly American" of the book title fundamentally refers to the plain-looking engineer Atkins, who lives with the local people, who comes to understand their needs, and who offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump. It is argued in the book that the Communists are successful because they practice tactics similar to those of Atkins. [from Wikipedia]
This is a point which has stayed with me since I first read the novel in the mid-sixties: Technology must be appropriate to the culture.  there's no use introducing refrigerated mega-storage to a country that cannot guarantee reliable power. Devising appropriate-level technology is going to be a challenge. Here's hoping these engineers are up to it.

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