Many of us involved in plant sciences are looking at ways to improve crop productivity by 5%, 7% or maybe even 10%. Although not focusing on the details of plant breeding, Annals of Botany has numerous papers on domestication, genes which improve crop yields, physiology which gives more robust yield, and uses of nitrogen or disease resistance.
But there is a new report from the UK Government Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (for those not familiar with the UK scene, this used to be called the Ministry of Agriculture, and has little to do with taking your partner for a country walk and onto a pub/guesthouse). The DEFRA report (deleted on defra site 2/Apr/2011) shows that 15% of all the food bought in shops that could have been eaten is thrown away in the UK. Amazingly, no less than a third of the bread is thown away and a quarter of potatoes and other vegetables. This is after all the labour, tillage, fertilizer, crop protection chemicals, harvesting and processing energy has been expended. It does not even take into account the loss of food which is not sold or decays in the distribution chain (as illustrated left). Clearly, reducing this wastage would have an immediate impact on the demand for ever-increasing agricultural production and more land coming into intensive production.
While shocking, I doubt that these figures are specific to the UK: given our cool climate, I expect as much if not more wastage in the tropics. But these data do emphasize the need for better study of the genetics of post-harvest traits that will increase quality and the storage life of foods and reduce wastage.
DEFRA: Official Statistics: Household food and drink waste linked to food and drink purchases (pdf, 27 July 2010) was at http://www.defra.gov.uk/evidence/statistics/foodfarm/food/ familyfood/documents/foodwastepurchases.pdf (deleted on defra site 2/Apr/2011)
See also: http://www.defra.gov.uk/evidence/statistics/foodfarm/food/familyfood/index.htm (deleted on defra site 2/Apr/2011)