Uneaten, moldy or forgotten. If you’ve ever been brave enough to sieve through your trash cans at home, you more than likely found quite a lot of discarded food. Yet much of that could have been eaten.
A three-month survey of 119 households in Seattle found about one-third of the food thrown away was edible. Of the discarded food, about half was unused produce, one-third was uneaten leftovers, and the rest was other uncooked food. A separate survey of household food waste across the cities of Nashville, Denver and New York found that up to 68 percent of discarded food was edible.
“Consumers and households are still the biggest laggards [when it comes to food waste],” said Andrea Spacht, a food specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We think we are doing better but we can’t be, given the waste. We have to understand that food comes with huge embedded resources. We do a good job of conserving water in the household now, but not food.”
Across the U.S., an estimated 40 percent of all the food produced is wasted. For every item thrown away, the cost is far more than just an uneaten meal. It’s also about the land and resources used to grow food and feed animals, and process, package and cook that food. Throwing out just one hamburger, for example, wastes as much water as a 90-minute shower.
Food waste on a global level is responsible for 8 percent of the world’s climate emissions, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. To put that in perspective, that is greater than the national emissions of every country in the world apart from the U.S. and China.
And it’s not just an environmental problem, it points to the stark truth of food inequality. The waste of nutrition and resources on this scale makes little sense when 15 million American households have been classified as food-insecure by the U.S. Department of Agriculture ― meaning they cannot access adequate food. Children in 2.9 million U.S. households experienced food insecurity in 2017.
Lower-income households already consume less fresh fruit and fewer fresh vegetables, with inequitable access to healthy food a major contributor to health disparities in the U.S. The nongovernmental organization ReFED has estimated that the country spends $218 billion a year growing, processing, transporting and ultimately discarding food that is never eaten.
This is just a snapshot of our role in the food waste scandal. It’s a problem, say activists, that the U.S. ― often cited as the biggest culprit in the world ― may finally be recognizing.
The past few years have seen an awakening among consumers of the scale and impact of the problem on our planet. An increasing number of food waste companies and charities have emerged to help people cut their own food waste and also ensure unwanted food makes its way to where it is needed. And with it has come a surge in new food waste companies with more than $125 million of venture capital funding invested in food waste startups in 2018.
But food waste is not just about consumers. The vast scale of the problem lays bare the flaws in the whole food system, right back to the farm level where waste is happening on a large scale. A recently published study found that more than 40 percent of vegetables on the 68 fields of vegetable crops it analyzed in North Carolina never even made it out of the field.
Most farm food waste is down to a lack of buyers or prices that are too low, said Lisa Johnson, of the Department of Horticultural Science at North Carolina State University and author of the study. “Growers are constantly looking to reduce losses because vegetable production is not lucrative,” she said.
Without a guarantee of an income that will at least cover the costs of harvesting, growers have no choice but to leave food in the field ― despite the huge waste that represents, said Johnson.
Grocery stores are often seen as major villains in the food waste scandal. In 2010, the USDA estimated in-store food losses at 43 billion pounds, equivalent to 10 percent of the total retail food supply. Some countries have tried to get a handle on this waste. In France, grocery stores are banned from throwing away edible food, facing fines of $4,500 each time they flout the ban. No such law exists yet in the U.S., but Danielle Nierenberg, president of the nonprofit Food Tank, says it may be necessary to force outlets to account for the “true cost” of wasted food.
For the time being, the U.S. remains a contradiction, say food waste activists. “It’s the place in the world where the most food is wasted, but also where some of the most exciting solutions are,” said Tristram Stuart, author of Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal and founder of Toast Ale, which makes beer from bread that would otherwise be thrown away. “I see a huge uptake in public awareness and a big investment in companies tackling food waste.”
NBA all-star Kevin Durant is among the investors in Imperfect Produce, a startup selling ugly fruit and vegetables that are often discarded at the farm or grocery store level purely for aesthetic reasons. The startup now operates across 12 U.S. cities. And one of North America’s largest fresh produce distributors ― Baldor Specialty Foods ― is aiming to be zero food waste. It already has a policy of sending no food waste to landfill and is working with its restaurant and retail customers to reduce surplus orders. More than 20 companies, including Walmart and Pepsico, have also committed to cut food loss and waste in their own operations in half by 2030.
Stuart said he hopes that action to tackle the problem can be rapidly scaled up. “Food waste is a microcosm for the environmental catastrophe unfolding on planet Earth. The hope lies in the fact that in a short space of time food waste has gone from a non-issue without any corporate or governmental policy or press coverage to a place where you cannot be a big company without having a food waste strategy,” he said.
While campaigners are celebrating the rising consumer and corporate recognition of food waste as a major problem, they do not expect the problem to disappear overnight. Only last summer, the Boston Consulting Group predicted the amount of food wasted around the world would grow by a third by 2030. Tackling the problem requires “a transformation that will take years,” said Evan Lutz, co-founder of the food waste company Hungry Harvest.
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