The Economist came out with an excellent report recently on the rising cost of food. To make a long story short, it's a complex problem with factors ranging from biofuels to increased meat and vegetable consumption.
One of the most striking elements of this was this piece on waste:
Unlike in rich countries, much of the waste in poor ones is a matter of money, not behaviour. Grain is often heaped on the ground and covered with a sheet: no wonder the rats get at it. Losses could be reduced by building new silos and better roads and providing more refrigeration, but those things are expensive. The African Development Bank is financing a seven-year programme to reduce waste by 3% a year. Given the scale of the losses, says Divine Njie of the FAO, who worked on the scheme, “we were surprised at how modest the targets were.” But 3% a year adds up to a 20% reduction in waste over seven years, a good start.
Rich countries waste about the same amount of food as poor ones, up to half of what is produced, but in quite different ways. Studies in America and Britain find that a quarter of food from shops goes straight into the rubbish bin or is thrown away by shops and restaurants. Top of the list come salads, about half of which are chucked away. A third of all bread, a quarter of fruit and a fifth of vegetables—all are thrown out uneaten. In America this amounted to 43m tonnes of food in 1997; in Britain to 4m tonnes in 2006.
The contradiction of the two is impossible to ignore. People have asked, at various points, about why I call myself a tech skeptic. This is why.
While technology is a necessary element for tackling any number of today's ills, here's a perfect example of tech-fetishism run amok. Take a very real problem (needed food goes to waste, fueling shortages) with deep causes and try to solve it with something technologically advanced, even if more efficient — but less shiny — solutions are within reach.
Actually, much of the developing world's food problems aren't due to a lack of new technology, but a lack of things available for decades in the developed world that need wider accessibility. African farmers don't need to be able to eat goddamn trees, they need adequate ways to store and transport their food. More well-fed countries could reduce waste by a combination of cultural and legal changes. Those will take major efforts, and that's where the attention should be focused.
But, while they come with difficulties, none of those require rewiring the human digestive tract, impressive a feat as that might be. In fact, that rather flashy "solution" is a hell of a lot less efficient than those mentioned above. It's one example of how over-reliance on technological solutions can obscure better options.