In the United States, 40 percent of the post-harvest food supply is wasted. But there’s another form of waste that plagues the food system. A 100 million acres of U.S. farmland to growing crops that don’t contribute efficiently to our food system and in some cases pose a threat to our health and the environment.
Beef is a prime example of the inefficiencies in our current food production system. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about half of U.S. cropland is used to grow feed for animals in industrial livestock facilities, better known as factory farms. In the 12 states of the Midwestern “Corn Belt,” 70 percent of planted acres are devoted to just corn or soy. But the average American cornfield feeds only three people per acre, making it less productive than farms in Bangladesh. That’s because feeding grain to animals and animals to humans is a highly inefficient way to feed people. According to industry sources, most feedlots require about six pounds of grain to increase a cow’s weight by one pound. Then, less than half of the cow becomes edible meat. In the end, it takes more than 14 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef sold in a grocery store.
If you fed the same amount of grain given to livestock to humans instead, you could support 840 million people.
Another major source of waste is the prevalence of processed foods in the American diet. A recent study estimated that 75 percent of the average American’s calories come from processed foods, which are largely made from corn, wheat, soy and some animal products. Corn and soy are among the most heavily subsidized crops in the country. This “commodity-based diet” lacks essential nutrients present in whole and minimally processed foods—explaining how some folks in the U.S. can be both undernourished and over-weight. Despite the lack of nutritional benefit, we continue to devote valuable resources to creating processed foods. Based on analysis of USDA figures, about 2.5 million acres of corn are destined to become high-fructose corn syrup, mostly for use in soft drinks. Another 2 million acres go to sugar beets and sugar cane. In total, we use an area of fertile farmland the size of New Jersey just to grow sweeteners. Given that sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, this use of millions of acres of land isn’t just wasteful—it’s also dangerous.
Ethanol production is another good example of agricultural production gone wrong. We use about 27 million acres of U.S. land to produce corn for ethanol, but the amount of corn it takes to fill a single 25-gallon gas tank with ethanol is enough to feed one person for a year. On a global scale, the amount of corn the United States uses to make ethanol could feed 500 million people. And most studies show that corn ethanol doesn’t provide significant climate benefits compared to gasoline. Turning corn into ethanol may be convenient, but like using furniture for firewood, it’s not a smart long-term strategy.
We must re-imagine ways to use our land and other resources more efficiently and change the industrial commercial agricultural model that uses far too much land to produce food and fuel that harms our health and environment, simply because it offers owners and investors the best returns.