With nearly 100 percent certainty I can assure you we won’t be hearing President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, or their respective surrogates, talking about America’s food waste dilemma (or what I and others would describe as a crisis) in the months ahead. That’s too bad since food waste is creating significant social, economic and environmental consequences for the US (and the world).
This growing crisis and the fact that discarded food provides a unique lens through which to view the water/energy/agriculture nexus (a topic of great interest to us here at GRACE and Ecocentric), prompted me to take a closer look at the food that goes uneaten and how it impacts Americans. While researching this trending topic, I learned some interesting facts I thought I'd share.
What a Waste!
1. Between one quarter and one half of the more than 590 billion pounds of food produced each year in the United States is squandered during the farm-to-table supply chain. Using this range, food writer and food waste expert Jonathan Bloom estimates that, every day America wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl – the 90,000-seat football stadium in Pasadena, California – and sometimes it’s as much as two stadiums full.
2. Americas' per capita food waste has increased by 50 percent since 1974.
3. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010 discarded food represented the single largest component of municipal solid waste reaching landfills and incinerators.
4. Food waste represents a significant cost to local governments (and ultimately taxpayers who already paid for it once as consumers), which is why many municipalities like the City of Santa Monica, California and Charleston County, South Carolina are adopting food waste collection and composting programs.
5. Food waste is particularly egregious at a time when hunger is a growing problem and an increasing human rights issue. If we wasted just 5 percent less food, it would be enough to feed 4 million Americans; 20 percent less waste could feed 25 million Americans annually.
6. Approximately $100 to $160 billion is spent each year on producing food that is ultimately wasted. (This estimate comes from Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland.)
How Food Gets Wasted
7. Crops are sometimes left unharvested because their appearance does not meet strict quality standards required by many supermarkets and expected by consumers.
8. A large portion of food waste occurs in households. The average American throws away 20 pounds of food each month or about two-thirds of a pound per person per day.
9. Fresh products like fish, eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables make up most of household food waste.
10. Much of household food waste is due to spoilage, overcooking, plate waste and over-purchasing. According to new research commissioned by WRAP (an advocacy group established to implement and market recycling in the UK), about two-thirds of annual household waste in the UK is due to food not being used in time, whereas the other one-third is caused by people cooking or serving too much.
11. Restaurants also contribute to the problem with supersized portions, sprawling menus and inadequate training for food handlers when it comes to minimizing food waste.
12. Some waste happens because people are confused about “use-by” and “best-by” dates – which are based on manufacturer suggestions for peak quality – and can cause people to throw out food for fear that it is spoiled, when in fact it is still consumable.
13. Most grocery stores discard food products as soon as they are past their “sell-by” dates even though these products still have shelf life left.
14. Given the water- and energy-intensive nature of growing, processing, packaging, warehousing, transporting and preparing food, it follows that wasted food means wasted energy, water and agricultural resources. Approximately 2.5 percent of the US energy budget is “thrown away” annually as food waste. This is equivalent to the energy contained in hundreds of millions of barrels of oil. In addition, 25 percent of all freshwater consumed annually in the US is associated with discarded food; when you add that waste up globally, it's as much water as in Lake Erie.
15. Food waste has significant ecological consequences. Wasted food translates to a significant amount of land conversion from forests, grasslands and wetlands to agriculture which adversely impacts biodiversity and exacerbates pesticide and fertilizer runoff. At the disposal end, nearly all food waste ends up in landfills, allowing it to decompose and release methane, a greenhouse gas that traps 21 times more heat than carbon dioxide. (Yes, another nexus issue: food waste-climate change.)
What Can We Do?
16. “With such a hugely inefficient food system comes opportunity,” says Dana Gunders, Project Scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of a forthcoming NRDC report about food waste. “Entrepreneurs and innovators who figure out how to tap into the huge reservoir of wasted food will find savings for themselves, their customers, and the planet as a whole.” One opportunity is to reconnect the whole supply chain from farm to table and table to farm by composting food waste and using it as fertilizer to grow crops. Another opportunity is to connect home and community gardeners so that their excess harvest can be donated to the needy instead of allowing it to rot. (Check out what “nutrition revolutionary” Sharon Feuer Gruber and Bread for the City, the largest food pantry in Washington, D.C. are up to.)
17. The solution is a combination of radically reducing food waste at its source while ensuring that what gets wasted becomes a resource rather than trash. Significant reductions in food waste can often be achieved through simple changes in food purchasing, storage and preparation. Using "unavoidable" food waste as a resource involves diverting it from landfills and using it to generate energy or create fertilizer from compost.
18. Improving the efficiency of our food system offers environmental benefits (less pollution and more efficient resource use), social benefits (reducing hunger through food donations) and economic benefits (cost savings to businesses, consumers and municipalities).
The complex nature of the problem and the range of potential remedies mean that everyone has a role to play. To find out how you can reduce food waste, check out these tips.