Poverty and food insecurity around the world are well known issues that are the center of focus for countless NGOs and philanthropists. In the United States, much attention is devoted to educating the public on healthy eating, dieting and combatting the endemic issue of obesity. While there is so much focus on what food Americans consume, there is surprisingly little discussion on what they don't, though it could be argued that the latter issue is of greater concern. Food is wasted at a staggeringly high rate in the United States; the EPA estimates that every year approximately 31% of the overall food supply is wasted, going straight from farms and factories to landfills. Even more concerning is the fact that this number is increasing every year. Americans waste tens of billions of pounds of safe and edible fresh food and groceries every year and many don't realize just how harmful it is to the economy and the environment. Unconsumed food that goes straight from the farm to the trash is an extreme waste of time, energy and resources that could be allocated elsewhere to solve any of the pressing issues our country faces, including food-insecurity. Reconciling the sheer scale of food waste in the United States with the fact that, on a regular basis, 30 million people go hungry in the most economically prosperous nation on Earth is tough, and further complicated by the difficulty of addressing the systemic issues that lead to this problem. Putting aside the issues of poverty and food insecurity which are directly affected and exacerbated by the misallocation of resources that constitute the problem of food waste, the financial and environmental impact of throwing away a third or more of all the food we produce is disastrous and requires great effort on the part of all stakeholders to be addressed.
Understanding the problem of food waste goes hand in hand with understanding the impact the production and consumption of food has on a macro level to the environment and the economy. A waste of food is a waste of the labor, water, land, energy, agricultural chemicals and other resources employed in producing that food. Given just how much food is produced annually, and how much of that is wasted, the amount of resources used to generate trash is truly staggering. The energy embedded in and used to produce wasted food amounts to approximately 2% of the United States' annual energy consumption, a significant amount when considering that the most dramatic energy conservation proposals involve cutting a fraction of one percent of total annual energy consumption. Moreover, agriculture uses about 70% of the freshwater supply in the United States. One study calculated that about one third of this, or about one quarter of the the total freshwater supply is accounted for by wasted food. At a time when countries like South Africa are virtually completely running out of water, this wastage seems particularly alarming. The study further summarizes the effect wasted food has on the environment, stating, “...given that the average farm requires 3 kcal of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 kcal of food (before accounting for energy requirements of food processing and transportation), wasted food accounts for ∼300 million barrels of oil per year representing ∼4% of the total US oil consumption in 2003. In addition to this wasteful consumption of fossil fuels and their direct impact on climate change, food waste rotting in landfills produces substantial quantities of methane – a gas with 25 fold more potent global warming potential than CO2 which would have been the primary end product had the food been eaten and metabolized by humans” (Kevin Hall) . Factoring in the amount of fuel that is used to process, package, refrigerate and transport food that is eventually thrown away adds even more to the environmental cost of food waste. This is all in addition to the gross misallocation of resources and capital when perfectly edible food is thrown away unconsumed. A report released in 2015 showed that the total cost of the approximately 60 metric tons of food wasted each year in the US has an estimated value of $162 billion. The cost of maintaining this amount of trash in municipal landfills amounts to about $1.5 billion a year for local governments. Food waste is not only a social and environmental cost, but a financial and opportunity cost as well.
Experts have identified the four major stakeholders in the food chain that directly contribute to food waste. These include the food producers, wholesalers and retailers, the food service industry and private households . The problem starts with the overproduction and harvesting of food by producers, which is a trend that is a result of many different factors that are hard to quantify and measure precisely, but whose effects penetrate the entire food cycle. The EPA's action plan for “food recovery” has reducing the volume of surplus food generated by producers listed as the most preferable and effective method of solving the overall issue. This strategy makes sense intuitively but is much harder to implement effectively in the real world. A major driver behind the overproduction of food in the US is how relatively inexpensive it is to grow many crops like corn, wheat and soybeans. Part of this reduced cost relates to the advancement of agricultural technology in the past few decades, but even more so is a direct result of massive subsidies from the federal government. As a 2015 article in The Economist pointed out, “American farm subsidies are egregiously expensive, harvesting $20 billion a year from taxpayers' pockets. Most of the money goes to big, rich farmers producing staple commodities such as corn and soybeans in states such as Iowa” (Economist). These subsidies for overproduced crops incentivize farmers to grow more and more, independent of their actual demand or use. The issue is further compounded when considering the prevalence of big, “corporate” farms in the United States that have the advantage of economies of scale. Essentially, it costs very little for these enterprises to plant a subsidized crop on large swaths of land, and the additional profit from selling those crops far outweighs the cost of producing them. Inversely, crops that don't sell aren't a huge loss for producers and as a result, as The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg reports, “Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the U.S. are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill...” Subsidies aren't the only reason perfectly edible crops are left to rot or thrown out. Cultural dynamics unique to the United States compound the amount of edible food that is left unconsumed; these mainly constitute Americans' obsession with the aesthetics of what they eat. Advances in technology that allow scientists to perfectly engineer the way fruits and vegetables look only increase consumers' intolerance for perfectly shaped produce. Natural processes that cause fresh fruits and vegetables to ripen, change color, wilt, oxidize or grow in different shapes affect consumer buying patterns to such a degree that producers are unable to sell crops that don't meet strict aesthetic guidelines, thus leaving them to rot and emit greenhouse gases.
Ending the inefficient and abused crop subsidies and providing channels for unsold produce to fall into the hands of food-insecure households that are less sensitive to the beauty of their fruits would eliminate a significant portion of wasted food. The fact that these solutions haven't been implemented thus far represents a greater policy failure on the behalf of all the major stakeholders in the food cycle. Farmers who directly benefit from crop subsidies make up a relatively small portion of voters, even in rural states, but are loud, active participants in the political process and can punish representatives who vote against subsidies. The rest of the electorate simply doesn't care enough or are ignorant to the issue of food waste and how much of their tax dollars go to these subsidies. Subsequently, few politicians are inclined to vote against farm bills. The same lack of political will inhibits efforts to offer pathways for producers and retailers of food to donate unsold or aesthetically flawed produce to the hungry. Without the necessary tax incentives or government programs, private retailers, restaurants and producers aren't inclined to spend extra money to donate what they don't sell. This model of apathy, inefficiency and ignorant consumer behavior is representative of much of the problems that make up the overall issue of food waste and needs to be resolved to achieve progress.
Misallocation of resources and insufficient regulations are the root of many of the problems on the supply side of the food cycle. However, consumers are still to blame for much of what drives producers and retailers to overproduce and waste as much as they do. Profound and widespread distaste for unshapely, discolored and bruised produce is a huge part of the problem but isn't outdone by general indecisiveness, lack of appropriate planning, impulse shopping and irrational fears of arbitrary expiration dates. Those last two causes aren't solely the fault of consumers, but rather the result of a broken commercial system that prioritizes profit at the expense of all the problems associated with food waste. Supermarkets are meticulously designed to entice customers to purchase as many products as possible, whether or not they're needed. As a result, much more food is bought than is actually consumed. The way produce is displayed on store shelves is a gargantuan aspect of the overall issue of food waste in the United States. Grocers constantly keep their shelves stocked to the brim with fresh produce to psychologically entice customers to purchase more. Nobody wants the last bunch of cilantro on the shelf, so it inevitably gets thrown away. When it comes to processed and perishable food, huge multinational conglomerates employ their own set of marketing tactics to sell and turn over as much inventory as possible. This includes intentionally printing early expiration dates on food items, so customers are forced to buy more, more often as they “go bad”. Meanwhile commercial growers in California trash thousands of tons of fresh that lack the sufficient shelf life for a cross country journey, intentionally growing more than they can locally sell in order to write off the losses for tax breaks (National Geographic). Unfortunately, those tax breaks are absent in many states for restaurants who otherwise can't afford to donate unconsumed food to local food banks. While the individual problems each individual stakeholder faces vary, they're all interrelated and together form a sum that is the extraordinary waste of food and resources that occurs in increasing amounts year after year. A cohesive strategy to attack the problem from all its root causes is imperative in order to truly make a dent in how much food goes from farm to landfill.
As reducing food waste has become a matter of national and international emergency, individual parties are stepping up to tackle the problem at a micro level, providing the rest of society with a useful template for employing strategies of their own to combat food waste more broadly. As National Geographic reports, “Some U.S. schools, where children dump up to 40 percent of their lunches into the trash, are setting up sharing tables, letting students serve themselves portions they know they'll eat, allotting more time for lunch, and scheduling it after recess—all proven methods of boosting consumption. Countless businesses, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and cafeterias, have stepped forward to combat waste by quantifying how much edible food isn't consumed, optimizing their purchasing, shrinking portion sizes, and beefing up efforts to move excess to charities” (National Geographic) . One of the most effective tools for implementing such solutions on a widespread level is government regulation. Ending subsidies for over-farmed crops and passing subsidies for retailers and restaurants that donate unconsumed food is a good start, as the EPA suggests . The EPA, FDA and FAO further identify that clarifying and revamping date labels and expiry guidelines combined with efforts to increase public awareness on the arbitrary nature of these dates would go a long way towards reducing the amount of edible food that is thrown away across US households. Private sector organizations and startups are starting to address some of the problems associated with food waste, including companies that buy imperfect produce from growers and sell them in low income communities for a discount. These efforts shouldn't be eclipsed by antiquated subsidies and company procedures that reward or encourage throwing away perfectly edible crops.
Food waste as a systematic issue has received a fraction of the attention of other social and societal inequities and problems. While the average American family of four throws away nearly $1600 worth of food annually , millions of people struggle to make ends meet and provide a steady source of food for themselves and their children. Stakeholders across the food chain must work together to address the various, interconnected and often difficult to measure intricacies of food waste and consumption in the United States. Overall, a central theme across the spectrum of solutions involves ownership and responsibility on the behalf of every stakeholder. Consumers must recognize the influence of their buying decisions on a large scale and businesses and producers must realize that their short-term gains are leading to long term losses on a much greater scale. While there is much progress to be made and many deeply engrained, systematic flaws that need to be reversed, the urgency of this issue, driven by ethical, financial and environmental concerns, ought to prevail.
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