The Food Waste Problem and What’s Being Done to Fix It

food waste

People almost everywhere – not just Americans – waste a lot of food. For much of the 21st century, it’s been discussed anecdotally, if at all, in the public sphere, but over the past few years, researchers have begun to express it in numbers – and those numbers are distressing.

In 2012, Dana Gunders, senior scientist with the Food & Agriculture Program of the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), published a 26-page report, “Wasted: How America Is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” Gunders documented a shocking misuse of American resources – 80 percent of the nation’s freshwater consumption, 50 percent of its land use, and 10 percent of its energy budget are spent getting food from farm to table. Squandering 40 percent of that consumption, Gunders wrote, “ … not only means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also that the uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste, where it accounts for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.” Reducing these losses by just 15 percent, she pointed out, would be enough to feed more than 25 million Americans every year.

Just months before the release of “Wasted,” the European Parliament adopted a resolution to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2020, and issued a statement that read in part: “The most important problem in the future will be to tackle increased demand for food, as it will outstrip supply. We can no longer afford to stand idly by while perfectly edible food is being wasted. This is an ethical but also an economic and social problem, with huge implications for the environment.”

Those implications were spelled out globally in 2013 by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in a report titled “Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources.” The annual loss of about a third of the world’s food supply – 1.8 billion U.S. tons, not including fish and seafood – not only has a direct economic cost of about $750 billion annually, but also accounts for about 8.8 million cubic feet of water (more than the annual discharge of the Ohio River) and 1.4 billion hectares of land (about a third of the world’s agricultural acreage). Once discarded, this food adds about 3.7 billion U.S. tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

If there’s any good news to be found in such estimates, it’s that there are plenty of places to attack the problem of food waste: on the farm, within distribution systems, at stores, and at home. Food security is one of those rare issues in which each of the Earth’s 7.5 billion people is a stakeholder, and an increasing number of these stakeholders, in both the public and private sectors, are joining forces to solve what the European Parliament has determined to be the most important problem facing humanity’s future.

The Big Picture

Last year, in the release of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals aimed at ending poverty and promoting prosperity while protecting the environment, the U.N. established its own ambitious target for food waste reduction. Among its objectives was, by 2030, to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer level, and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses.” In fall 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – agencies that had already partnered on initiatives to reduce food waste on both the production and the consumer sides of the food system – adopted this 50-percent-by-2030 target and announced it as the first-ever national food waste reduction goal.

FoodKeeper app

USDA’s “Food Keeper” app provides information about proper food storage and expiration dates to help consumers make informed food purchasing decisions.

It would be easy to dismiss such a target as too ambitious if it weren’t supported by concrete recommendations for achieving it. In “Wasted,” Gunders outlined steps that government, businesses, and consumers could take, at each stage in the supply chain, to reduce inefficiency and waste in the American food system, but acknowledged that much work needed to be done to translate good intentions into action.

On the heels of the U.N.’s release of its Sustainable Development Goals, USDA and EPA, along with people from organizations at every step along the food chain, convened a gathering known as the Food Recovery Summit in Charleston, South Carolina. After these stakeholders weighed in to discuss key challenges in reducing food loss and waste, they issued a collaborative Call to Action, identifying opportunities and challenges and outlining actions to be taken.

As in most high-level documents, some of the recommendations of this all-inclusive group (“Optimize distribution networks to reduce transportation and storage costs”) sound maddeningly vague. But much of this action is already underway – some of it by government, drilling down far beyond the big-picture reports and seminars and conferences and mission statements.

USDA, for example, is reaching out to consumers with information and tools, such as a mobile app called “Food Keeper,” to help with decisions about buying and storing food. According to JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate for NRDC’s Food & Agriculture Program, “Many consumers don’t feel knowledgeable about storing their food properly at home, and that drives a lot of consumer-level waste. The Food Keeper app is something people can use to answer simple questions: ‘How do I properly store bananas or oranges or lettuce?’ And it includes information about storage temperatures and date labeling and expiration dates.”

Food Recovery Hierarchy graphic

The Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy details methods of preventing or diverting wasted food. Credit: EPA image

The EPA depicts its priorities in preventing and diverting wasted food with an inverted pyramid, with the most desirable methods – those that create the most environmental, social, and economic benefits – at the top of what it calls the Food Recovery Hierarchy. The most preferred approach – and the only approach in the hierarchy that aims at the supply side of the food system – is to “reduce the volume of surplus food generated.” The other priorities deal with directing uneaten food away from landfills and toward hungry people or animals, or perhaps for industrial uses such as fuel conversion or rendering.

USDA scientists are already at work on solutions aimed at the supply side, developing technologies to make food processing more efficient, to extend shelf life, and to utilize food byproducts rather than have them go to waste – for example, the recent development, in a project jointly executed by USDA scientists and a northern California miller, of flour made from grapeseeds, which are typically composted or fed to cattle after wine is made. USDA scientists are currently at work on investigations of grapeseed flour’s potential for reducing blood cholesterol and obesity-associated diseases.

As Berkenkamp points out, USDA is also contributing through its traditional loan, grant, and technical assistance programs, targeting organizations that work to research or otherwise advance the cause of food waste reduction.

Elizabeth Royte, who began writing about food waste in National Geographic a few years ago, points out in her work that food waste priorities differ among nations; in the developing world, much food is lost after it’s harvested but before it reaches consumers, due to lack of good storage facilities, roads, and refrigeration. The United States and other developed nations tend to waste food further down the supply chain, where retailers or consumers discard leftovers or perishable food before it’s expired.

ARS food waste research

Researchers at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service help reduce food waste by developing new ways to extend food shelf life and by creating new food products, biobased plastics, and animal feed from food waste. Credit: USDA photo by Stephen Ausmus

In the developed world, where more of life’s essentials are monetized, it seems likely, then, that the effort to reduce food waste will gain momentum once the problem is shown to affect bottom lines. Multinational, government, and nonprofit organizations are increasingly demonstrating not only that food waste loses money, but that reducing this waste can save – or even earn – money for businesses and consumers. When then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the nation’s food waste reduction goal in September 2015, he pointed out that the average American family leaves more than 2 million calories, worth nearly $1,500, uneaten every year. Both the FAO and the NRDC have documented the economic and environmental losses associated with food waste.

More recently, a group of leaders from American businesses, nonprofits, foundations, and government began to substantiate the potential gains associated with solving the problem of food waste. A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, or ReFED, not only calculates a price tag for U.S. food waste – the nation spends more than $218 billion, or 1.3 percent of GDP, growing, processing, transporting, and disposing of uneaten food annually – but also provides hard data to detail how each of its 27 recommended solutions, applied along each link in the supply chain, can yield financial benefits. Implementing the roadmap, say its authors, could generate 15,000 new jobs, double the amount of recovered food donated to nonprofits, and reduce up to 1.5 percent of freshwater consumption and nearly 18 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Food Waste Reduction: Now a Career Path

Some of the most exciting efforts to reduce food waste are already well underway in the American private sector, where pioneers have spied opportunity in the nation’s squandered agricultural bounty. CropMobster™, an online platform linking potential buyers with unsold produce in three markets so far – the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento, and New York – began three years ago when a pair of Sonoma County farmers invoked a “flash mob” on their Facebook page to purchase organic greens that had been returned from weekend farmers’ markets.

According to Berkenkamp, about a sixth – 10 million tons – of U.S. fruits and vegetables never make it to market. This is sometimes due to price fluctuations or labor shortages, but it’s most often for aesthetic reasons – scars, dents, blemishes, or deformities that don’t meet the cosmetics standards of supermarkets or exporters.

keeping food from landfill

City Harvest volunteers glean produce and other foods from participating farmers’ markets in a process called “Greenmarket Rescue” at the City Harvest Food Rescue Facility in Long Island, New York, on Sept. 16, 2015. Channeling food that might otherwise go to waste to people that are food insecure not only addresses hunger, but has economic and environmental benefits. Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Several entrepreneurs have had the foresight to view these 10 million pounds as an untapped secondary market. A few years ago, Ben Simon, then a student at the University of Maryland, and some friends began to notice the amount of dining hall food that ended up in the trash at the end of the day and they were appalled. They launched a nonprofit, Food Recovery Network, to redirect this food to food banks, soup kitchens, and other agencies. Today, it’s the nation’s largest student movement against hunger, with 198 chapters in 44 states having recovered and donated more than 1.5 million pounds of food.

After graduating, Simon moved to California – “because that’s where all the food is,” he said – to launch his own company, Imperfect Produce, whose motto is “Ugly Produce. Delivered.” Imperfect’s core business is the delivery of erstwhile rejects such as lumpy potatoes, two-headed mushrooms, and wrinkled citrus to retail customers at a steep discount from the supermarket prices.

Upon its 2015 launch, Imperfect immediately established the business case for selling less attractive fruits and vegetables; within less than a year, it was selling 70,000 pounds of produce every month, to more than 10,000 customers in the San Francisco Bay Area. On the East Coast, a retailer with a similar direct-to-consumer model, Hungry Harvest, services the Baltimore, D.C., and Philadelphia areas. According to Simon, Imperfect has plans to expand into other western markets, beginning in Los Angeles.

The company has also launched a pilot program with Whole Foods Market™, selling Imperfect produce in 42 Northern California stores, making Whole Foods one of a handful of retail stores to experiment with the “uglies.” Giant Eagle Supermarkets, which operates 420 stores in the eastern United States, recently launched its “Produce with Personality” pilot at five stores in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Simon and Hungry Harvest founder and CEO Eric Lutz are businessmen, but neither of them saw food waste as a way to make a buck. Simon’s passion was ignited when he saw so much food being dumped from the university dining hall at the end of every day, and Lutz has said he’s always considered himself a “social entrepreneur.” Every sale Hungry Harvest makes is accompanied by a donation of food to organizations that can get it to people who will be glad to have it.

This gets to the core of the argument for reducing food waste: The United States, whose world’s-largest defense budget accounts for about 4.5 percent of its GDP, is wasting 1.3 percent of its GDP – a significant amount of money – in disposing of edible food. It’s an egregious economic efficiency, but it’s not why the most passionate advocates are spending so much of their time on the issue: According to the FAO, 870 million people go hungry in the world every day, and the 2.9 trillion pounds of food wasted every year is enough to feed each of them twice over. Food insecurity isn’t just a Third World problem, either; 1 in 6 Americans lacks a secure food supply.

“We have 42 million people in the United States who are food insecure,” said Berkenkamp. “So we’re living in this very odd time of enormous waste and also enormous scarcity. We have a chance to do much better – not only to prevent food from being wasted in the first place, but also to ensure these surpluses of wholesome foods are getting to people in need.”

This article was originally published in the 2017 edition of U.S. Agriculture Outlook.

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