Food Waste is a Bigger Problem Than You Think

640px-GI_Market_food_wasteFood waste is a horrendous problem in this country that no one seems to want to talk about. Yet food is the one product type that everyone consumes, and while a surprising number of people don’t have it, those that do are shockingly wasteful. As recently as 2012, close to 50 million people experienced food insecurity, not in Africa or Bangladesh, but right here in the USA. Worldwide, that number is over 1 billion people.

That makes the fact that somewhere between a quarter and a third of all food produced worldwide is never eaten all the more shocking. America is the worst offender by far. Here in the states, the portion of food production that goes to waste is closer to 40 percent.

A report by the National Consumer League, called Wasted: Solutions to the American Food Waste Problem, came out last week. It maps the magnitude of the problem and, as the title suggests, offers a number of practical suggestions.

Let’s start with a look at the problem. Most of the food waste in the developing world occurs in the supply chain. Either the farmers suffer crop failures due to weather, insects or disease, or they are unable to harvest the crops efficiently due to inadequate equipment. Inefficient transportation and lack of refrigerated trucks lead to more losses in transit. Consumers, despite the lack of refrigeration, waste less food since they have so little to begin with and they value it.

The situation is inverted in developed countries. Consumers waste more food. American consumers waste 10 times as much food as their counterparts in Southeast Asia.

Why do we waste so much? Well, one reason is because it’s become so cheap. Americans today spend only 6 percent of their total household expenditures on food. Back in 1982 that number was 12 percent. But, as the saying goes, perhaps you get what you pay for. According to Nadya Zhexembayeva, in her book “Overfished Ocean Strategy,” the nutritional value of American food has been declining dramatically. A study of 43 vegetable crops over the period from 1950-1999 shows declines of 20 percent in Vitamin C, 15 percent in iron and 38 percent in riboflavin. American food waste has risen by 50 percent since the seventies at the same time that prices and nutrition have declined. Today’s American family of four throws away anywhere from $1,350 to $2,275 worth of food each year. Put that all together and we are looking at $165 billion, as a nation, being wasted.

The energy, water and land implications of this are enormous. In essence, this means that at a time of increasing resource scarcity, 20 percent of our land, 4 percent of our energy and 25 percent of our water is used to produce food that ends up being thrown out.

Unfortunately, the story does not end once that wasted food is grown. After the plates are scrapped and refrigerators cleaned out, the food in the trash bin must be hauled to the landfill, costing more energy, where it ultimately breaks down into methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. One study in the U.K. found that eliminating all food waste from landfills would be equivalent to taking 1 in 4 cars off the road. One has to wonder: If the true environmental cost of our food were priced in, would we be so willing to waste it?

Hunger in the streets will not simply be solved by reducing waste, but the report tells us that, if we could reduce our level of waste by 30 percent, that would be enough food to feed our 50 million hungry. If only we could get it to them.

So, much for the bad news, though it surely represents opportunities for those with a mind to address them. Let’s take a look at some of the solutions.

Addressing the food waste issue requires a multifaceted approach. First, retailers need to move away from the buy-one-get-one-free mentality. That might be a good way to move product, but much of it gets moved right into the landfill with a brief stopover in the home. That used to be considered acceptable as long as the company was generating profits. Those days will soon be gone. Attitudes can also change about food that is less attractive but still perfectly safe to eat. Perishable foods near expiration can be sold at marked down prices where, if used promptly, it can provide excellent value. More retailers can participate in programs to donate overstock foods to those who are hungry.

But the biggest opportunities are with consumers. Perhaps the biggest barrier is consumer attitudes. Because of the fall in food prices, food is not valued as it was in earlier times. People need better information about how to store foods properly and expiration dates must be clearly labeled. Labels should indicate the date at which food will become unusable.

Perhaps tomorrow’s refrigerators will scan the inventory as they are being stocked and issue reminders such as this one. “Expiring tomorrow: milk and cheese. Use it while it’s still good.”

Public education programs aimed at reducing food waste have been quite effective in Europe. The U.S. EPA has a food recovery hierarchy that spells out the most effective use of unusable food — starting with donating it and ending with composting. Rochester, New York-based Epiphergy followed this hierarchy in its extensive food waste recovery program. Middle stages include producing animal feed, followed by energy.

Cities can help by providing composting services and also by charging for waste collection by the pound instead ofusing a flat rate. That would encourage people to think twice before throwing things away.

These are all small steps. But when people understand the larger picture that ties them all together, it changes their attitude and their behavior. Experiences in Europe have proven that out. We need to raise awareness here and set ambitious targets for food waste reduction and we need to do it soon.

Image credit: Taz Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

12 responses

  1. Nice story.

    Except it isn’t true.

    Do they think nobody bothers to check the FACTS.

    Raise your hand if you think 40% of the food we produce in the US is thrown away?

    If your hand is raised, you are clearly not a critical thinker.

    Ok, what do you think they mean by 50 million people suffered from “food insecurity”.

    Well included in that definition is anyone who at anytime during the year:

    reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet but with little or no indication of reduced food intake.

    By making the definition THAT BROAD the make the number meaningless.

    The actual number (not reported) that would have meaning would be more along the traditional definition: Reports of multiple indications of skipping meals, low quality food and reduced food intake.

      1. Except they don’t actually specify what that entails, do they?

        They don’t actually do anything to specify how those numbers were generated, do they?

        Consider what the FAO considers as waste for seafood:

        Fish1 discards are the portion of total catch which is thrown away or slipped. It comprises the following components:

        a. Species which are intended to be caught, but get spoilt and rendered unfit for consumption by the act of catching; these discards are food loss.

        b. Species which are intended to be caught, but do not meet the regulatory or quality standards, such as size; these discards are food loss.
        See, few would consider these WASTE, but they ARE part of the definition being used.
        Here’s a challenge for you.
        FIND THE ORIGINAL SOURCE OF THESE NUMBERS and then see if you agree with the method and assumptions.
        Good luck.

      1. So what does the FAO actually show:

        Food waste is more a problem in industrialized countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America

        So ~100 kg per person per year.
        So 220 lbs per person per year
        So .6 lbs per person per year.
        So assuming 4 meals a day (largest meal considered to be equal to 2 meals), that means you are wasting about 2 oz of food at breakfast and lunch and 4 ounces at dinner.
        Clearly NOT a huge problem.

  2. The large amount of fresh food waste is a lose-lose situation for the environment, the struggling families in today’s tough economy and for the food retailers. There is no single cure, or silver bullet for food waste reduction therefore, we should address the food waste problem in every link in our food supply chain. For example, the excess inventory of fresh perishables close to their expiration on supermarket shelves, combined with the consumer “Last In First Out” shopping behavior, might be the weakest link of the fresh food supply chain.
    The new open GS1 DataBar standard enables applications that encourage efficient consumer shopping by offering him automatic and dynamic purchasing incentives for fresh perishables approaching their expiration dates before they end up in a landfill.
    The “End Grocery Waste” App, which is based on the open GS1 DataBar standard,
    encourages efficient consumer shopping behavior that maximizes grocery retailer revenue, makes fresh food affordable for all families and effectively reduces the global carbon footprint.

    1. There is no great amount of food loss.
      If you think so, provide RELIABLE data to support that statement.
      ASSERTION is NOT equal to PROOF, regardless of who asserts it.

        1. So what does the FAO report actually show:

          Food waste is more a problem in industrialized countries, most often caused by both retailers and consumers throwing perfectly edible foodstuffs into the trash. Per capita waste by consumers is between 95-115 kg a year in Europe and North America

          So ~100 kg per person per year.
          So 220 lbs per person per year
          So .6 lbs per person per year.
          So assuming 4 meals a day (largest meal considered to be equal to 2 meals), that means you are wasting about 2 oz of food at breakfast and lunch and 4 ounces at dinner.

          Clearly NOT a huge problem.

  3. I’ve heard of climate deniers,but I’ve not heard of food waste deniers. Apparently Mr. Doucette thinks that no food is wasted here and is asking for facts to back up the argument. I notice that he is not offering any FACTS to back up his position.
    There is a link in the story to my original source. If you open that, you will see their sources in the references section. Specifically their data about food waste in the US came from this source.
    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0007940
    Their study was funded by the NIH.

    1. I didn’t say no food is wasted.

      Lie much?

      As to that study.

      SHIRELY YOU JEST

      The latter was estimated using a validated mathematical model of metabolism relating body weight to the amount of food eaten

      So they estimated the WEIGHT of the population vs estimates of the amount of food grown and used the DIFFERENCE to claim that we are wasting food.
      HOW OBTUSE can you get?

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