Fortunately, there are some innovators attacking the food waste problem. For example, Simon Wong, a business leader in Hong Kong who is heavily involved in the restaurant and banquet business, is hoping to change cultural eating habits there. Waste disposal costs in the city have increased because landfill space is nearly exhausted, which means reducing food waste makes good business sense. So Wong has worked to change the traditional eight-course banquet menus, which are very popular in Hong Kong, to a six-course meal, which is still more than satisfying and greatly reduces the amount of food thrown away. If this were fully adopted across the city, simply changing banquet menus would save 200 metric tons of food waste every day. 

We seem fascinated by ever more elaborate means of production, but fail to look at our current use.

We should learn from pioneering efforts like this, seeing the enormous opportunities to reduce food waste — and enhance food security, food safety, environmental sustainability and economic competitiveness worldwide. There is a singular opportunity here, but only if the public and private sectors make the necessary investment. It would make sense for USAID, the Gates Foundation, agribusiness and venture capitalists to match the investment currently made in agricultural biotechnology with parallel investments in reducing food waste. Given the enormous food security, health, environmental and business benefits at stake, it seems odd we haven’t seen more activity here.

Perhaps food suffers from the same problem as energy, water and other resources. We seem fascinated by ever more elaborate means of production, but fail to look at our current use. While it is easy to shout things like “Drill, baby, drill!” and pretend it’s a resource management strategy, we need to actually address our global resource challenges from a balanced perspective. That includes bolstering efforts to improve the supply of resources, but it must also mean better management of our resource demands, especially in reducing waste and improving efficiency.

In a world where resources will become steadily more scarce, competitive and volatile, we need to be smarter about how we meet our needs. Let’s start by picking all of the low-hanging fruit — both that linked to the supply and that linked to demand. Let’s not waste the opportunity to reduce waste. View Ensia homepage

Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) is director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. These views are his own, and do not reflect those of the University of Minnesota or any other organization.