According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Americans – from production to consumption – waste between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply, amounting to over 130 billion pounds of food in 2010. In 2015, the EPA’s Facts and Figures Report estimated that food waste in the residential, commercial, and institutional sectors (industrial manufacturing/processing and wholesale/distribution industries excluded) totaled over 79.4 billion pounds.
Food waste can and does occur at every stage of food production for various reasons, though the Commission for Environmental Cooperation calculates that in North America the most food waste (20-25%) occurs on the commercial level, when consumers buy more food than they use or don’t know when food is and is not spoiled, and thus toss the excess and suspicious. One aspect of the food supply that has garnered especial attention is fresh produce.
Of the produce produced in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the Food and Agriculture Organization reported that in 2011 populations consumed 48% and lost the other 52% through food waste. Lack of workers in some places, like California, account for some of the loss; another problem is simply that the produce doesn’t make it to the markets. In some cases, because the consumer has come to expect “perfect” produce of certain sizes, colors, et cetera, that stores will reject fruits and vegetables that don’t fit the mold. The National Resources Defense Council describes the problem as “[e]xpectation of cosmetic perfection.”
In addition to the aesthetic expectation, overproduction also contributes to waste, as farmers grow produce to meet the high demands that stores have for produce, not because they expect to sell all of it, but because having overstocked produce displays supposedly attracts more buyers. The wasted excess is incredible considering that in 2018 over 800 million people – over 10% of the world population – still suffer from undernourishment. The lost nutrition aside, this also wastes the labor and energy applied to grow and transport the food.
Meat, Dairy, and Eggs
Though produce is one of the more popular topics and is the focus of companies like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods, food waste slams the meat, dairy, and egg departments as well. In 2014, the USDA Economic Research Service reported that the meat, poultry, and fish industries suffer the most food waste – 30% as opposed to the 19% for vegetables – discarded because of “cooking loss and natural shrinkage…loss from mold, pests, or inadequate climate control[,] plate waste, and other causes.” In 2010, producers generated 58.4 billion pounds of these commodities, of which 15.3 billion (26%) were wasted by retailers and consumers.
The report admits that “[s]ome food loss is inevitable” because of the perishability of non-shelf stable products and the noncompliance with government food safety regulations. Other loss is accidental; spillage, for example, at the farm-to-retail, retail, and consumer levels is partly to blame. Still, avoidable actions play a significant role.
On the consumer level, misunderstandings about Sell By and Best By dates on perishable animal products prompts disposal of foods that are likely still safe to eat. CEO Katy Franklin of ReFRED explains, “You might think this product isn’t safe after the [food label] date, but what it really means is that this food is not at peak quality after this date.”
This meaning is unknown to many consumers, in part because no federal regulations exist for these labels, so states create their own. In Montana, at least as of 2014, milk has a 12-day “sell-by” date. Milk available after the date could not be sold. In a study by John Hopkins University that surveyed over 1,000 Americans aged 18 and older, 84% responded that they occasionally tossed food near the package date; 37%, that they always or usually did.
The negative externalities of wasting meat, poultry, and eggs are greater than when wasting produce, as the former products, taken together, require more energy to produce, process, and distribute. According to an older study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, livestock uses only about 1.3% of the total water in agriculture, but accounting for the forage and grain needs for livestock increases water requirements significantly.
When meat and eggs end in the trash (or all over the factory floor, as was the case with these poor fellows) and dairy goes goes down the drain, all the energy and water resources that went into them are likewise trashed and washed away.
In the past decade, organization have arisen to combat food waste.
In 2019 the USDA, EPA, and FDA partnered to hatch an interagency strategy addressing the issue. This food waste reduction plan targets six areas: interagency coordination, consumer education and outreach, coordination and guidance on food waste measurements, clearer communication on food safety and label guidelines, collaboration with private industries, and food waste reduction within federal agencies.
Their goals is to reduce food waste 50% by 2030.
Among the U.N.’s Sustainable Development 2019 goals was improved resource efficiency and reduced waste.
Managing Director Devon Klatell and former Program Director Monica Munn at the Rockefeller Foundation suggested that 2016 was “the birth of the food waste movement.” Consumers have more information about the issue, which has spurred more intentional efforts to reduce their individual “food waste footprint.” These include eating the food they already have before buying more, freezing excess portions, and reusing old ingredients.
Behavior shifts at the consumer-level are important, but change must also occur in processing/packaging and retail. Slowly but surely, production facilities and retailers are moving toward more sustainable practices, such as improved packaging and forecasting and strategic portion sizing. In the spring of 2014, the management company Bon Appetit launched a program with farmers, distributors, and chefs to find kitchen homes for “cosmetically challenged produce.”
As the world population continues on its uphill climb, economizing the land, water, and energy resources available to us will be critical. Farmers grow and raise enough food to feed the world, but 1/3 of it ends in the trash. To make this planet work for everyone, we need to reverse this trend.