Your mother may have told you not to waste food—but most of us don’t listen. Up to 40% of food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. That’s a massive waste of calories, but also of freshwater, energy, pesticides and manpower that went into production, distribution, and sales. Food accounts for 10% of energy use, and 25% of the methane emitted in landfills. Food waste is contributing to climate change, too.
This all comes from a new report by Dana Gunders, at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The report notes how strange it is that we don’t talk more about food waste, given its importance. The last U.S. Department of Agriculture study on the subject was back in the 1990s. But it concedes a few realities. Food makes up a relatively small percentage of household budgets for most people. Also, growers, distributors, and retailers have obvious incentives to sell more food, and to decry any discussion of waste as some kind of attack on the free market.
The report tracks each phase of the food system—farming, packing, processing, distribution, retail, food service, household, and disposal—analyzing the inefficiencies at each stage, and offering ideas for improvements. For example, the Stop and Shop retail chain saved an estimated $100 million a year by ending its "pile ‘em high, watch ‘em fly" philosophy of food display. It found that fewer items on the shelves led to less waste, less need for intervention by store assistants, and more customer satisfaction.
Gunders also suggests looking to Europe, which has made cutting food waste a priority at European Union and national level. The U.K.'s "Love Food Hate Waste" campaign, which has received backing from 53 retailers and food brands, has cut waste by 18% in five years.
Finally, the report makes four recommendations:
- The government should conduct a "a comprehensive study for food losses in our food system," and "clarify the meaning of date labels on food so that consumers stop throwing out items due to misinterpretation." A lot of food gets thrown away because of over-cautious labeling.
- State and local governments should set their own targets, "implementing food waste prevention campaigns in their jurisdictions as well as their own operations."
- Businesses should try to understand "the extent and opportunity of their own waste streams and adopting best practices," as in the case of Stop and Shop.
- And that we all can help reduce waste "by learning when food goes bad, buying imperfect produce, and storing and cooking food with an eye to reducing waste."
Doesn’t sound too hard, does it?