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General Mills and Unilever Fight Food Waste to Fight Climate Change

Another reason for the business community to get serious about food waste: climate change. According to the latest available figures, food waste accounts for up to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply, which worked out to about 133 billion pounds in 2010 alone. That makes food waste the single largest category of waste in this country, much of it going to landfills where it decomposes and releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

With that in mind, last week the Department of Agriculture teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency to launch the U.S. Food Waste Challenge. The new initiative will address the food waste issue all along the supply chain and it already has a pair of rather interesting corporate leaders lined up to spearhead the effort, General Mills and Unilever.

Food waste as an opportunity

Methane leakage from natural gas fracking operations has been an area of increasing focus in climate change management, but given the pushback by the oil and gas industry against tighter regulations, that problem is not likely to abate in the near future. There is also little opportunity for the business community at large to advocate for more effective regulations without getting entangled in the usual jobs-vs-environment argument. With the exception of those directly affected by local drilling, such as the agricultural and tourism sectors, there is even less incentive for direct action.

Food waste, in contrast, provides a non-controversial, actionable pathway for corporate social responsibility at all levels, similar to recycling and energy efficiency.

In addition to direct greenhouse gas management through reduced methane emissions, food waste action can also translate into a bottom line benefit as well as reduced greenhouse gases related to production, transportation, storage and disposal.

The U.S. Food Waste Challenge

The Food Waste Challenge follows a model that the Obama Administration has deployed successfully in other sustainability-related areas such as the Better Buildings Challenge for energy efficiency and the Rooftop Challenge for lowering the installed cost of solar power.

The idea is to recruit private companies and other stakeholders to serve as role models and test beds for best practices, while leveraging the federal government's media profile to raise public awareness of the issue. That provides companies with a unique opportunity to get out in front of an issue and establish leadership in their sector.

Along with General Mills and Unilever, the kickoff organizations include Rio Farms, the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, Feeding America, and Rock and Wrap It Up!

With the stated goal of leading a "fundamental shift in how we think about and manage food and food waste in this country," the Food Waste Challenge is looking to have 400 partners lined up by 2015 with another 600 to follow, for a total of 1,000 by 2020.

Aside from what you might expect in terms of consumer and business education, the Challenge includes a number of initiatives that involve shifts in current practices by the USDA, such as a pilot meat-composting program for food safety labs and the reclamation of wholesome but misbranded or nonstandard products for donation.

USDA and EPA will also support private sector efforts with technical assistance, management tools and the development of new waste-reducing technologies.

Unilever and General Mills lead on food waste

USDA and EPA went to the heavy hitters for its first round of corporate recruiting, and Unilever in particular offers some good insights into the direction that the Food Waste Challenge is taking.

Unilever's sustainability programming revved up in 2010 with the introduction of its Sustainable Living Plan, and in a recent Twitter chat with Unilever, TriplePundit took note of the company's gains in waste reduction and greenhouse gas management at the corporate level.

However, Unilever estimates that sourcing and manufacturing account for a relatively small amount of the lifecycle greenhouse gas footprint of its food products. The lion's share - 68 percent - comes from the way consumers prepare those products, and changing those habits is where the challenge lies ahead.

For its part, as a co-chair of the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, General Mills has also taken the lead on reducing in-house food waste and related greenhouse gas emissions, partly by reclaiming usable food for donation.

Like Unilever, General Mills also provides a hint about the obstacles that the Food Waste Challenge will need to confront in terms of greenhouse gas reduction. In its 2010 CSR report, for example, the company noted that it did not meet its intended greenhouse gas goals partly because of a surge in demand for convenience products like packaged cereals and granola bars, which require additional energy at the manufacturing end.

[Image: Food waste by sporkist]

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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