Imagine a lavish dining room where three tables are set with an abundance of food.
But before anyone can sit down for a much-needed meal, the host dumps one table’s worth of food into the trash.
A third of the guests leave hungry.
Close to a third of the food we produce globally is never eaten.
This may sound absurd, but on a massive (and way, way more complicated) scale, it’s the true story of food waste: Close to a third of the food we produce globally is never eaten. In a world where, in 2019, an estimated 2 billion people “did not have regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food,” this food waste feels like an especially upsetting missed opportunity.
Food’s carbon footprint: the scale of the challenge
Every year in the U.S., billions of tons of food are lost or wasted, and our homes account for a vast portion of that: 43 percent. Restaurants and food service represent 26 percent, farms make up 16, grocery stores and distribution another 13, and manufacturing is responsible for the remaining 2.
In other words, successfully reducing our collective food waste is important, because it gives us a chance to avert the worst-case climate scenarios.
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals say food waste and loss must be halved by 2030, which will be pivotal as the population approaches an estimated 10 billion people by 2050. The U.S., where $408 billion of food is wasted each year, has the same goal.
While this might feel like biting off more than we can chew, there are solutions.
Here’s a look at what’s happening across the food chain, from farm to table, and what we can achieve if we all pitch in. After all, food tastes better when we’re working together (and keeping the waste at bay).
Down at the farm
What’s happening: the problem of early food loss
Food loss and waste may sound like pretty much the same thing, but the difference is important.
“Food loss” refers to the unintentional result of supply chain problems, like pests, bad storage infrastructure or lack of market access. “Waste,” on the other hand, refers to food that could have been eaten but was tossed or left to spoil, because of oversupply, failure to meet cosmetic standards or negligence.
At the farm level, unintentional food loss is more likely than food waste. Farmers do everything they can to minimize loss, but they’re working in a system they didn’t design.
Farming can be fickle to begin with, and once you fold in volatile markets, consumer whims, inadequate infrastructure and the effects of climate change, it becomes a recipe for food loss.
Agriculture is responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Agriculture (combined with forestry and other related land use) is responsible for almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and in a perfect world, farmers would make just the amount of food the world needs. But beyond planning for natural disasters, the rigid contracts between farms and suppliers often have unpalatable penalties for not reaching quotas, so farmers hedge their bets by planting more than is needed.
A recent California-based study found that one-third of the produce from more than 100 farms remained on the ground after harvest or was left unharvested altogether.
While the underlying reasons vary between regions and products, they’re similar: Labor isn’t always available, for example, or prices aren’t enough to cover the harvest cost. Consumers’ exacting esthetic standards are also a factor: So-called “ugly produce” is often culled because it won’t sell as well.
In lower-income countries, the problems tend to be more logistical: a lack of refrigeration, storage or pasteurization technologies, for example.
Field of dreams: farm fixes for a more sustainable system
Just as different crops need varying soil conditions, different regions and types of farms require diverse fixes for food loss. Luckily, farmers are good at finding creative climate change solutions and using what they have on hand.
Nearly one in four U.S. households have experienced food insecurity at some point in the past year.
It’s hard to stomach whole fields left unharvested when nearly one in four U.S. households have experienced food insecurity at some point in the past year. But it’s complicated: Even when businesses are properly incentivized through government subsidies or tax credits, the farm-to-food-bank logistics can be overwhelming.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed three bitter truths about this: how much food insecurity exists in the U.S., how much oversupply farmers are left with when their markets go under… and how hard it is to connect the need and the surplus. Increasingly, non-profits like California’s Farm to Family program are working to feed hungry communities with the food that farmers no longer have buyers for.
Although it’s best to prevent loss, divert or donate, a great deal of food still ends up in landfills. Food waste makes up 21 percent of American landfills, where it oozes methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
As one alternative to this, some farmers are using technological alchemy to transform their waste (and bolster their bottom line).
With massive digesters, they break down crops, manure and sewage by adding heat and subtracting light and oxygen; through this process, they can create everything from biogas, fertilizer and bioplastic to animal bedding.
With other creative solutions ranging from community-supported agriculture models to sustainable farming methods to improved storage, the possibilities are vast—but the time we have to adequately address food loss is not.
At the grocery stores
What’s happening: surplus in aisle six
3.3 million tons of food is wasted each year because of poor storage, inefficient transport or too much warehouse handling.
A huge amount of food is tossed before it even makes it to a grocery store’s receiving area: 3.3 million tons of American food are wasted each year because of poor storage, inefficient transport or too much warehouse handling. But the cracks in the system open wider as the food makes its way to the aisles.
“The entire market model of a supermarket is to create a cornucopian display of plenty,” according to Tristram Stuart, food waste expert and founder of Feedback, an environmental campaigning organization. Grocery chains have spent billions on tailoring retail experiences to the human brain, which is wired to consume when it perceives abundance.
Seductive surplus (no supermarket wants to look empty) is baked right into the current system.
Next time you’re at your local grocer’s, notice how the fruit is displayed. Those pyramids of shiny apples you can’t resist? They’re a classic example of overstocking, and chances are, the fruit on the bottom may never see the inside of a shopping cart.
Then there’s the issue of “best before” dates, which are often arbitrary and inconsistent—yet they mean stores need to regularly toss still-edible items that seem to be running out of time.
Checkout changes: put these solutions in your cart
The gold standard of addressing food waste in America is source reduction (that’s a fancy way of saying “don’t make as much food”).
To this end, Hannaford Supermarkets, a large New England grocery chain, is actively tackling food waste before it happens. To avoid ordering too much, they use a tech-savvy solution that orders based on real inventory and sales prediction; they’re also moving toward daily fresh deliveries to reduce spoilage.
While Hannaford’s solutions are effective, a shift in retail culture would help, too. Short-life discount sections—you know, that tiny shelf at the back of the store featuring fluorescent “50% off” stickers—could become the norm.
Flimsy meat packaging could be swapped out for the vacuum-sealed kind, which would be more pricey upfront, but make meat last far longer (an upside that balances out the downside of plastic packaging).
Standardizing confusing “best before” dates would have a meaningful impact on reducing food waste.
Speaking of shelf life, standardizing confusing “best before” dates would have a meaningful impact on reducing food waste. Although this would be up to the government to do, the changes would be felt across the food chain: Consumers would likely throw out less totally edible food, and grocers could label products in alignment with well-reasoned guidelines.
On a macro level, retailers and wholesalers are beginning to share the risk with farmers by guaranteeing purchases, even if they don’t need as much as intended or there’s a harvest issue.
In the foodservice industry
What’s happening: order’s up on restaurant waste
In the U.S., foodservice companies, institutional settings and restaurants produce two to four times the waste of grocery stores, retail centers and wholesale distributors put together. The U.S. restaurant sector generates 11.4 million tons of food waste annually, which accounts for more than $25 billion.
But just as in every other stage of the food supply chain, there’s no quick fix. Restaurants operate on slim margins, and funding new endeavors upfront can be tough.
Many restaurateurs are beholden to landlords who control how waste is collected and disposed of. Nevertheless, many are trying to rewrite the rules of the game.
Now serving: a more sustainable menu
You don’t need to read the menu to know that restaurants operate on thin margins.
But increasingly, they’re also prioritizing that other bottom line: environmental sustainability. Luckily, those two aren’t mutually exclusive.
A 2019 study of restaurants around the world with waste reduction strategies found that within a year, 76 percent had recouped their investment. Within two years, that number was 89 percent. The restaurant strategies included waste tracking, reducing overproduction and repurposing surplus.
Change in this sector involves reconsidering the cultural norms at play. How full do plates have to be? How many options does a menu really need? Is a buffet truly necessary? Could technology help? An app called Too Good To Go, for example, connects consumers with restaurants needing to offload extra food at a discount.
Waste audits may sound a little gross and dull, but following the food prevents waste. In fact, tracking makes the most business sense of all possible strategies; this helps with staff and executive buy-in. Tracking tactics include visual observations, tally sheets and tech tools. Ikea’s smart-scale technology, for example, saved the equivalent of 3 million meals from going to waste in their 2019 fiscal year.
Just like farms, restaurants would benefit from financial and logistical support to donate more of their food. They offer more granular advice, too, like giving diners well-sized take-away containers or, better yet, monitoring what’s left on plates so portion sizes can be adjusted. They also note that many farmers will pick up raw leftovers as animal feed, for less than restaurants would pay to haul it to the landfill.
What’s happening: use it or lose it in your kitchen
Remember how supermarkets create a “cornucopian display of plenty,” as food waste expert Tristram Stuart put it?
The result is that when we shop those abundantly stocked aisles, we tend to buy more than we need and then throw a great deal away.
One study found people wasted 3.5 pounds of food at home each week, 68 percent of which was edible.
The Natural Resources Defense Council researched food waste in America across three cities and found that, on average, people wasted 3.5 pounds of food each at home every week. What’s more, 68 percent of that food waste was edible.
Power to the people: how to reduce food waste at home
The first step to a lower-waste lifestyle is a mindset shift: If we start thinking about the true costs of waste, food feels more precious.
Step two is getting organized: Menu planning is a great way to buy just what you need now, saving you a trip to the compost bin when you realize you had no idea what to do with those impulse poblanos.
Before you leave for the market, shop your refrigerator first. That slightly wilted cilantro you’ve been ignoring can still be tossed into a delicious soup. While we’re talking about cilantro, proper storage of your fruits and vegetables is more important than it sounds. Walk around your grocery store with waste in mind: How do they display produce? Is there a short-life section? How do they package meat and dairy?
Toward a less wasteful future for food
It’s true that slashing our food waste in half by 2050 is only possible if huge systems—agriculture, foodservice, retail—also change. But behind each shift there are individuals choosing, advocating and educating.
Experts like Stuart have faith in the power of collective effort, and deciding as a society that it’s not acceptable to waste food on a colossal scale is an important start.
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