A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council takes a close look at one significant – and eminently solveable – world hunger problem: the wasting of food at every step of our food supply. The report, “Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill” (PDF file), also illustrates the interdependence of our food supply, our use of energy, and our impact on the environment.
Dana Gunders, report author and an NRDC food and agriculture project scientist, treats the reader to a detailed description of America’s food waste problem and practical solutions. The report traces our systems of food production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal, identifying inefficiencies and losses at each step of these interlinked systems. (The report is worth reading even if only for its patient walk-through of the realities of the food system in the United States.)
The environmental impacts of food production in the United States are revealed in a simple series of startling statistics:
Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten… [T]he uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.
Methane, of course, is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change and is more than 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100-year period.
Of course, wasting food is not merely an environmental problem. Food waste represents a huge financial loss to society, and increases food scarcity with rippling effects across our economy and society. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that for the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, 38% of grain products, 50% of seafood, 52% of fruits and vegetables, 22% of meat, and 20% of milk are lost and unconsumed. An industry consultant estimates that up to one in seven truckloads of perishables delivered to supermarkets is thrown away. The scale of these losses is staggering: Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, and a McKinsey Global Institute report estimates the total benefit to global society of reducing food waste to be $252 billion in 2030.
The benefits of reducing food waste in combatting hunger are also huge:
Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.
Luckily, there are many opportunities to reduce food waste, from large scale system changes to individual consumer choices. In presenting solutions, the report presents us with a startling yet hopeful perspective:
The average American consumer wastes 10 times as much food as someone in Southeast Asia, up 50 percent from Americans in the 1970s. This means there was once a time when we wasted far less, and we can get back there again.
How do we get back there? Beyond individual actions, Ms. Gunders calls for a “suite of coordinated solutions” throughout production and supply-chain operations. Public awareness of the problem and its solutions plays a critical role in driving these changes. And changes in individual consumer behaviors have the potential to generate enormous savings in food, money, and energy consumption:
American families throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy. The cost estimate for the average family of four is $1,365 to $2,275 annually. Consumer food waste also has serious implications for wasted energy. A McKinsey study reports that household losses are responsible for eight times the energy waste of post-harvest losses on average due to the energy used along the supply chain and in food preparation.
While the report does not focus on steps that individuals and families can take to reduce food waste, we are fortunate that NRDC’s website provides a detailed list. Its helpful suggestions include:
- Shop Wisely–Plan meals, use shopping lists, buy from bulk bins, and avoid impulse buys.
- Buy Funny Fruit–Many fruits and vegetables are thrown out because their size, shape, or color are not “right”. Buying these perfectly good funny fruit, at the farmer’s market or elsewhere, utilizes food that might otherwise go to waste.
- Learn When Food Goes Bad–“Sell-by” and “use-by” dates are not federally regulated and do not indicate safety, except on certain baby foods. Rather, they are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Most foods can be safely consumed well after their use-by dates.
- Mine Your Fridge–Websites such as http://www.lovefoodhatewaste.com can help you get creative with recipes to use up anything that might go bad soon.
- Use Your Freezer–Frozen foods remain safe indefinitely. Freeze fresh produce and leftovers if you won’t have the chance to eat them before they go bad.
- Request Smaller Portions–Restaurants will often provide half-portions upon request at reduced prices.
- Eat Leftovers–Ask your restaurant to pack up your extras so you can eat them later. Freeze them if you don’t want to eat immediately. Only about half of Americans take leftovers home from restaurants.
- Compost–Composting food scraps can reduce their climate impact while also recycling their nutrients. Food makes up almost 13 percent of the U.S. waste stream, but a much higher percent of landfill-caused methane.
- Donate–Non-perishable and unspoiled perishable food can be donated to local food banks, soup kitchens, pantries, and shelters. Local and national programs frequently offer free pick-up and provide reusable containers to donors.
By adopting these simple steps, we assume responsibility to take individual actions to reduce the problem of hunger, reduce our consumption of energy, and reduce our contribution to global climate change. In doing so, we also take fundamentally moral actions that preserve the resources of the world.