Just about any conference I've been to in the last year or so has had at least one speaker make reference to the looming population expansion. Global population is expected to rise by 50% by the year 2050 with an additional 3 billion new mouths to feed. Most of this growth in global population will take place in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Food demands are not only growing, they are also changing as the growth of disposable income in countries such as China and India, will create more demand for meat products. At the same time, the rising demand for biofuels will divert arable land away from human food production.
By 2050, we're expected to have 9 to 9.5 billion people on earth – depending on which study you cite. The agriculture industry is being called on for improved seed, better agronomic strategies and new technologies to meet this demand.
I certainly agree that we need to look for ways to be more efficient, effective and productive. But, it appears that one element of this equation has been largely overlooked… consumers.
As demand tightens, food prices will inevitably increase, leaving some already pressed household budgets at a breaking point. Availability has been and will continue to be tied to ability to pay and ability to conserve – two qualities many Americans lack these days.
For me, that means living within your means and adapting. My mother was particularly good at this. In the 1980s – the era of big hair, Michael Jackson and astronomical interest rates – our family food budget (like many) was strained. However, I never knew that because there was always plenty of good stuff to eat. Granted, steak wasn't on the menu, but my mother had (and still does) have a phenomenal way of concocting ingredients that taste good, while using a nominal amount of meat – which is generally the most expensive component to a meal.
I learned how much I love soup – potato, broccoli, chicken noodle, barley, bean… you name it. Then there's pizza casserole, cabbage dinner with meatballs and sweet and sour chicken. All these were homemade, no pre-made sauces or boxed dinners. I'd seen the commercials, but never tasted Hamburger Helper and there were no Oreos in the pantry. Instead, we had homemade goulash and mom's famous gingersnap and chocolate chip cookies.
Many of the ingredients were hauled up from the basement where she stored onions and potatoes, as well as array of vegetables she'd either frozen or canned from the garden. Sure we had an occasional roast or chicken barbeque, but our family saved a lot of money because my mom was thrifty – and mom, I mean that in the best of ways.
Today's teenagers are headed off to college where they will partake in a vast array of offerings from the cafeteria's buffet line. Sure, some will learn to eat Ramen noodles quite regularly, but how many of them really know how to cook … cook good food cheap?
The other day a friend stopped over while I was wrestling with a 16-pound turkey I was readying to stuff. She asked if I was preparing for a special dinner for a special occasion – I imagine because it was the end of February smack between Christmas and Easter. I said, "nope," it's just the family, but we'll eat off this for a few days and then freeze the rest when we've had enough. And, I wouldn't think of tossing the bones without boiling them for turkey soup.
I bought the whole turkey, rather than pre-cut parts or deli meats, for 75 cents a pound (on sale). So, for my 16-pound bird, I paid $12. In all, we had turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, dressing, and peas for under $20. It fed five people and there's enough left over to have at least two more meals.
My penny-pinching meal strategy, fondly referred to as "Thanksgiving," was thoroughly enjoyed by all. Eating cheap doesn't necessarily mean eating boxed mac and cheese every day. It does, however, require desire, effort and know-how. These are real-life lessons that benefit society in many ways, including using less processed foods for better nutrition. It begs the question, should we be teaching food preparation skills in high school or sooner?
I'd be remiss if I didn't touch on one other consumer-controlled aspect to feeding the world – food waste. In America, we have a tremendous amount of food that never gets eaten, which has drains on society well past lost nutrition. From the farmgate to the retailer, and from the chef to end consumer, we all need to be more conscious of food waste and efforts that could be made to curb such losses. The US EPA asks:
In America, did you know?
Around 35 million tons of food waste was generated, in 2010, 97% of which was thrown away into landfills or incinerators.
More than 14% of households in the U.S. were food insecure, in 2009, meaning they did not know where their next meal would come from.
Wasted food means wasted money for businesses and residences.
Food decomposes in landfills to generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas.