When asking indigenous farmers about food waste, A-dae Romero-Briones, director of programs for the First Nations Development Institute, said they expressed puzzlement. According to Romero-Briones, indigenous farmers didn’t know why they would operate a system that intentionally wasted food. After all, if they were doing things right, they wouldn’t be wasting any resources. Basically, she said that to these farmers, waste was an indicator that the system wasn’t working quite right.
Romero-Briones shared this insight during this year’s ReFED Food Waste Solutions Summit in Minneapolis, where farmers, scientists and business leaders came together to share and discuss challenges and solutions to global food waste.
Well, other speakers made it clear: the food system at large certainly does produce waste, at both national and international scales. According to ReFED, a nonprofit that uses data-driven solutions to solve food waste, over a third of the food available in the United States goes unsold or uneaten, with about a quarter of it going to waste. The proportion is about the same across the globe, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports, and produces up to 8 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. In monetary terms, ReFED estimates that this food waste cost the U.S. about $285 billion in 2019.
Dr. Jonathan Foley of the climate solutions nonprofit Project Drawdown emphasized during the meeting that if we are to meet our climate goals, including those outlined in the Paris Agreement, we can’t rely solely on technological innovations, such as advancements coming from the renewable energy sector. We also have to clean up our act and correct the very many foolish little things we’ve built into daily habits and company policies, one of which is wasting food. “New is good, but now is better,” he said.
Taking a look at just part of the U.S. food system, ReFED estimates that more than 10 million tons of surplus produce come from the retail sector, the largest proportion of which ends up in the landfill. In an age of zero waste corporate commitments, though, there is hope. “There’s a lot more leaning in than there used to be,” Suzanne Long, chief sustainability and transformation officer at Albertsons Companies, said during the summit. The grocery retailer, one of the largest in North America, has a goal of diverting all food waste away from landfills by 2030.
Despite challenges to this goal, such as collecting meaningful data and meeting the variety of municipality requirements, Long said she’s found that the paradigm around food waste is shifting, and in a positive direction. Instead of having to automatically default to paying to compost food, Long said Albertsons has been hearing more often from companies that want to take the waste off their hands for free. One example has been Do Good Foods, a new company that turns food waste into chicken feed. Albertsons then buys that chicken to sell in its stores, Long said, and saves money in the process.
Albertsons’ commitment is a fundamental game-changer, Pete Pearson, WWF’s senior director of food waste, said at the summit, emphasizing how important it is that the company is beginning to cash in on that asset that we call waste. He said every industry has a unique pattern that can turn food waste into profit. “We’re going to look back and say we were silly, because there was so much value in what we waste,” Pearson said.
Our norms are so silly, in fact, that Andrew Shakman, chief executive officer of the B Corporation Leanpath, said many companies have accepted food waste as a given. He went so far as to say that the food waste he’s seen coming from industry is not accidental, and it’s not careless either. Instead, he said food is often treated as a low-cost way to meet rigid business policies. “We don’t have to be solving our problems with food waste,” he noted.
Shakman said leaders tend to bring limiting beliefs to issues around food waste. For a buffet restaurant, he said, the thought tends to run like this: we have to provide the same options to all our customers, so we make more food than will be eaten. The cost to a company’s bottom line is rarely taken into consideration, he said, even though the solution may be as simple as switching to made-to-order during lulls, which not only saves resources but also provides customers with fresh and hot meals.
Executives often fail to see the loss in wasting food, Shakman said, a loss that may be entirely clear to the employee tasked with pushing perfectly good food down the disposal. But there is a real cost. Shelf Engine, an artificial intelligence-based grocery forecaster, has found that in the process of diverting over 4.5 million pounds of food from landfills since 2016, their clients have experienced an average expansion of 15 or so percent of their gross margin dollars.
One thing’s for certain – we can’t claim that our food system runs well until we find a fruitful use for every byproduct…until “food waste” becomes an obsolete term.
Image credit: davisuko via Unsplash
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.