AMERICAN CORPULENCE hit new highs in 2014. According to a Gallup-Healthways Weil-Being Index survey, 27.7 percent of all U.S. adults now qualify as obese, a gain of more than two percentage points since 2008.
Such metrics might suggest we're eating everything in sight, but nothing could be further from the truth. At every link in the industrial food chain, we're leaving perfectly edible fare on the table. Overplanted crops rot in fields. Disfigured cucumbers are culled at packaging facilities. Bunches of bananas, lost in the crowd, fail to make lasting connections with consumers in the highly competitive meat market of the Whole Foods produce section.
And even the butternut squash that makes it into your refrigerator or onto your plate at the Olive Garden is far from sure to make it down your gullet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations all estimate that 30 to 40 percent of the food that gets produced is never actually consumed.
There's an upside to our profligacy. If we consumed every calorie we now produce, we'd have to start using shipping containers as coffins. Grocery store dumpsters spilling over with surplus pluots and still-edible hot dogs have emerged as an attention-getting symbol for muckrakers eager to illustrate the excesses of our broken corporate food industry. But that's not the only way to view these supersized horns o' plenty. They may be wasteful, they may be perverse, but they're also evidence of a system that is working so efficiently, it allows millions of people to essentially treat food like they treat water or electricity--as a resource that's always on tap and so cheap it's often deployed without much thought.
Unfortunately, not everyone is benefiting from this bounty. In 2013, the USDA reports, 14.3 percent of U.S. households experienced "food insecurity," meaning they "had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources." Obviously, there are opportunities to distribute surplus food more effectively.
Wasted food also has environmental costs. "Throwing out 1 pound of beef wastes as much water as taking a 5 hour shower," an ad from an Oakland, California, nonprofit called Food Shift advises. And it's not just NRDC report from 2012, " the decomposition of uneaten food accounts for 23 percent of all methane emissions in the United...