Over the past decades, the United States has exemplified mass production as an advanced industrialized nation in nearly all areas. The food industry, in particular, has found ways to feed the growing population to the point of surplus. The amount of food that is produced does not equal the amount that is consumed. This surplus leads to waste. In the United States, an estimated 38 million tons of food is wasted each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, 2017). Food that ends up in a landfill, it is not an efficient use of land or raw material. The waste ends up being both an environmental and economic problem that will take an implementation of new technology, informing the public, a reformation of habits, to begin to alleviate.
The amount of food being produced and how much of it is ultimately utilized is an important place to start when considering the magnitude of the food waste problem. During times of war, it was important to the United States to be able to effectively to produce enough for the population to eat. Although current times aren't the same as the World War eras, the issue of food security still arises. According to Dr. Seona Candy, “recent studies suggest that food production would need to roughly double to keep pace with projected demands from population growth, dietary changes, and increasing bioenergy use.” (2017) The current process of producing food is able to feed just some people. Unfortunately, many are left without food while food seems to ironically be abundant.
When looking at marketing methods in industrialized countries such as the United States it can be observed that with the aesthetics expected to upheld by supermarkets when it comes to produce appearance can be one area in which food can be thrown out. A study conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) examined the areas and reasons in which food is lost at the retail level in 2014. These included: “dented cans and damaged packaging, spillages, abrasion, bruising, overstocking or over-preparing due to difficulty predicting the number of customers, and culling blemished, misshapen or wrong-sized food in an attempt to meet consumer demand.” (Buzby et al, 2014) Here it is seen that not only bruised or spoiled foods are being discarded, but foods that are also the wrong shape and color are being thrown away as well. When looking through the aisles at the grocery store, a customer expects to see uniformly shaped and colored produce. The demands of producing and selling food that is up to consumer's standards are contributing to the amount of nutritionally dense foods wasted.
In addition to the amount of food being wasted on the retail front, consumers contribute to the large amounts of food being discarded that culminate from habits formed. “In 2010, 133 billion pounds of edible food at the retail and consumer levels went uneaten (1,248 calories per person per day) with about two-thirds of this waste attributed to consumers.” (Qi et al, 2016) The amount of waste coming from households has increased as the population has increased. Holger Bonus notes that the issue that stems from this includes the increasing lack of space to contain the municipal waste, especially considering the volume of people moving to metropolitan areas where space is already limited. (1972, p. 259) This observation was made decades prior and continues to ring true in modern times. A study conducted by Danyi Qi and Brian E. Roe aims to quantify and explain why consumers waste food in the first place, using a survey to access the opinions of the public. Overall it was found that the population is concerned with the threat of foodborne illness and the priority of saving time. These are viable concerns that encroach many of us, as consumers. Food that has a certain expiration date stickered on the packaging will present the possibility of becoming ill, even if the food item itself hasn't yet spoiled. With busy schedules, finding the time to buy grocery items more frequently as opposed to buying in bulk at one time seems to do more good in the long run. That is until the food supply purchased for two weeks' time goes uneaten, spoiled and ultimately thrown away.
The practice of not utilizing food that's produced is wasteful in more than one way. Along with the waste comes the damaging effects of food waste on the environment are profound. Degradation of our ambient air and water, as well as inefficient uses of resources, are of concern when discussing the effects on the environment. The energy needed to produce the amount of food needed to feed our growing population is growing and according to Michael E. Webber, the process is largely inefficient. The process of producing food is “requiring more carbon-based fuels and nitrogen-based fertilizers, both of which exacerbate global warming, river and ocean pollution, and a host of other ills. At the same time, many nations are grappling with how to reduce energy demand, especially the demand for fossil fuels.” (Webber, 2012) Here the concern with utilizing fossil fuels in order to produce the food we eat is wasteful, and the problem balloons when considering the food that is produced sometimes goes unconsumed. This process of using “roughly 10 units of fossil energy to produce one unit of food energy” (2012) only to discard what is produced is what creates this inefficiency. The consistent reliance on fossil fuels and the harmful carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with the usage is one way that food waste is damaging the environment in the United States.
Upon further exploration, it is found that the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from food waste are significant to the current concerns for climate change and environmental preservation. Although still a theory that isn't widely accepted, the threat of climate change is still one to consider. “The production, processing, packaging, distribution, retail, and disposal of this wasted food results in GHG emissions of at least 113 MMT CO2e/year, which is equivalent to 2% of US national emissions.” (Venkat, 2012, p. 444) Different food products contribute to different amounts of emission as discussed in this report done by… The animal industry tends to have a larger impact on greenhouse gas emissions that plant products. “They make up about 30% of all wasted food by weight, but account for nearly 57% of the emissions.” (Venkat, 2012, p. 444 ) Produce such as fruits and vegetables make up a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emission. It's important to note that this is from the producing end of food waste and consumer energy waste was not taken into account. Nonetheless, the greenhouse emission from the food wasted in the United States is overlooked since it might be seen as negligible. A two percent contribution may seem small, but the incentive in reducing greenhouse gas emission wherever possible to reduce the strain on the environment.
There are ways to begin to moderate some of the energy wasted as well begin to make an environmental change in the positive direction. One solution is managing agricultural practices such as animal waste management. The manure from animal waste release potent greenhouse gases such as methane into the atmosphere, and with concentrated feeding operations there is a lot of waste produced. “Anaerobic digesters and micro-turbines could convert that manure into enough renewable, low-carbon biogas-fired electricity to displace 2.5 percent of the nation's power generation while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” (Webber, 2012) Decreasing the dependency the United States has on fossil fuels using renewable energy sources has long been the strategy. The way anaerobic digesters work is the organic waste material already abundant is converted into methane gas (CH4) which is a useable fuel source. (Ristinen et al., 2016) “After purification, the volatile gases are almost pure methane with a heating value of 1000Btu/cubic feet. One pound of dry organic material will produce about five cubic feet of methane.” (Ristinen et al 2011) This process of anaerobic fermentation is a way to utilize the waste already being produced while keeping potent greenhouse gases such as methane out of the atmosphere, and more importantly, using this gas for energy.
Besides the environmental aspect of producing energy with food waste using anaerobic digesters, there are economic and social benefits as well. Not only is methane collected for use, other byproducts from animal waste, food scraps, and other organic materials can be repurposed to valuable items such as bedding and fertilizer. Farmers and other food producers can also sell the biogas as means of cutting costs. (U.S. EPA, 2011) The social benefits include reducing the odor from waste, scaling down the use of land to store waste and keeping pathogens out of the air and waterways of the general public. According to AgSTAR, under the EPA, “anaerobic digesters can destroy more than 90 percent of disease-causing bacteria that might otherwise enter surface waters and pose a risk to human and animal health.” (U.S. EPA, 2017) Animal waste still falls under the umbrella term for food waste since the animal products are consumed by many in the United States. The threat of pathogens from the food produced is also of concern in addition to preserving the environment and is worth mentioning when discussing the benefits of anaerobic digesters. The benefits of anaerobic digesters come from turning both animal waste and organic food waste from the producer's end into a renewable energy source that can be used for electricity or heating. (U.S. EPA, 2011)
Just as there are two sides of a coin, there are downsides to anaerobic digesters that may deter the implementation despite some of the rewards. It is noted that “when choosing among gas use options, facilities must examine each option's potential effects on financial performance, associated labor requirements, the skills needed to maintain and repair the equipment, or the need for a third-party system operator.” (U.S. EPA, 2011) These are to be considered because the food industry is still a business and although it should be a priority to try and preserve the environment by any means possible, profit is still a motivating factor that drives the food economy.
In addition to reducing the amount of energy lost, the initiative for the United States is to begin to reduce the amount of food wasted overall. “The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development identified reducing food waste as an avenue to increase the availability of food, while the Obama administration announced in September of 2015 a first-ever food waste reduction goal for the United States of 50% by 2030.” (Qi et al, 2016) This means reducing the amount of food that reaches the landfills, and in doing so, we'll reduce the amount of energy needed to produce food not being utilized, and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from decomposing food in landfills.
Composting is a solution that can be done on the production end for undesirable food and on the consumer end when it comes to throwing away food scraps. Composting is an aerobic method in which food is broken down with microorganisms in the presence of oxygen. This method is valuable for producers, especially farmers, in that composting can be a way to replenish the nutrients lost in the soil after harvest. When decomposition is complete the compost can be used as fertilizer. (U.S. EPA, 2017) In landfills when food decomposes, methane is released into the atmosphere and this accounts for 18 percent of the total methane emissions. (Dongyan et al, 2017) Composting is one way to divert food waste from landfills. Composting was demonstrated to be effective in a university setting. In a study conducted at Kean Universities it was found that “if each institution were to install a similar on-site in-vessel composting system to divert food scraps away from landfills, the reduction on GHG emissions would reach 12,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalents a year.” (Dongyan et al, 2017, p. 485) If composting could be adopted at large institutions such as universities, hospitals, and businesses in addition to households this would create a huge positive impact on the environment.
There are steps to take to begin to mediate the amount of food wasted on a consumer front as well, and it might take shifting the mindset of the American consumer. Since consumer waste is such large contributor to the amount of food wasted in the United States, as mentioned earlier a change in the way food is purchased can make an impact on how much ends up as waste. One way to curb the amount of food wasted is to raise awareness of the amount of food wasted per household as well as the environmental consequences. (Neff, Spiker, and Traunt, 2015, p.11) It has been identified that food wasted on the household level is due to the fear of foodborne illness, so another suggestion is to identify the reason certain foods go uneaten long enough to spoil. (Neff et al, 2015, p.12) These suggestions mentioned show that awareness and a shift in behavioral attitudes towards food by changing consumer habits can alleviate the food waste problem in the United States.
Food security is an issue that needs attention for the sake of the environment and the quality of life of those who inhabit it. Being aware of how much food is being produced but not utilized on the producer's end, and aware of the food being wasted on the consumers' end is one way to begin to change the direction the United States is heading. Solutions such as anaerobic digesters, composting food scraps, and raising awareness amongst the population can be implemented in order to reduce the negative effects of our food system. The idea behind these solutions is to reduce the energy it takes to produce food and allocate food waste wisely if it cannot be avoided.
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