A United Nations report found that roughly 17% of food around the world is wasted annually. This loss equates to an estimated $400 billion a year. Yet, all food waste is not inevitable, and there are many practical ways to cut down on food waste across the United States.
The Issue of Food Waste
Food waste is when uneaten and unsold food from restaurants, households, crops, and grocery stores is thrown in landfills or left to rot, instead of being recycled or donated. Some of this food is inedible, such as fruit pits and animal bones. However, a large portion is perfectly fine for people to eat. According to ReFED, 35% of available food in the US went to waste in 2019.
There isn’t one prevailing reason why so much good quality food is wasted globally. For example, produce that is considered “ugly” or irregular is seen as unsellable and thrown out by many grocery chains. In the agricultural sector, it is common for entire fields of fruits and vegetables to be left rotting if their prices drop. Due to oversupply, the price of produce can drop below the cost to harvest, package, and ship it, leaving growers at a loss. In fact, 33.7% of produce in the US is left unharvested.
Consumer mindsets and misleading food labels are two additional factors that lead to inefficiency and food waste. Many consumers believe that “best before” labels mean that food may not be safe to eat after the date. In reality, expiration dates are misleading and unstandardized. These are recommendations that companies make, based on consumer opinions, about when products are the freshest to consume. While some shelf-life dates indicate a product’s “sell by” dates, others will say “enjoy by” or “use by” a certain date. Researchers find that this ambiguity leads to “unnecessary waste” of good-quality food products.
Food waste is problematic not only because it results from inefficiencies, but it has major environmental impacts. Wasted food requires the same amount of energy, water, resources, and manpower as any other consumed food product to produce. Also, food that ends up in landfills produces methane as it rots, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), “about 6%-8% of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced if we stop wasting food.”
Aside from its environmental impacts, understanding the sheer loss of food value is sobering when compared alongside food insecurity rates in the US. In 2020, 10.5 million households in the US were classified as “food insecure.” This classification means that throughout the year, these households “were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members [due to] insufficient money or other resources for food.” The COVID-19 crisis has caused a rise in food prices and a reduction in household incomes, worsening food insecurity in the US and worldwide.
The issues of food waste and food insecurity are worsened by racial and socioeconomic disparities in the US. Black and Hispanic households, single-parent homes, households with children under the age of six, and those living in poverty suffer from food insecurity the most.
What Is Being Done?
It is the goal of organizations, such as ReFED, to cut 50% of food waste in the US by 2030. Yet, many significant changes need to be made in the way food is produced, sold, and consumed in the country to make this a reality.
Consumer mindsets and perceptions of what “good” or “bad” food has an immense impact on the amount of food that is wasted daily. However, all the pressure should not be placed on consumers to fix this complex issue. Many non-profit organizations have promoted policy changes in the US that focus on the preservation, recovery, and recycling of surplus food. These policies include limiting the amount of organic food waste that consumers and businesses can dump in landfills, and liability protection for groceries and restaurants that would like to donate food, but refrain from doing so out of fear of legal liability.
Standardized practices for labeling food and beverage products will help reduce waste as a result of consumer confusion. These practices include clarifying the difference between safety and quality when it comes to food labels. The Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC) recommends that companies use “freeze by” labels to demonstrate to consumers “the benefits of freezing food … to extend shelf life.”
Considering the harsh realities of climate change that we will face in the near future, we cannot afford to continue wasting food, which is a waste of natural resources at its core. With the global population en route to reaching 9.8 billion by 2050, arable land (land that is suitable for growing crops) will be under immense strain. This potentially global problem is all the more reason to support initiatives that optimize how food is used and distributed in the US and across the world.
Further resources on food waste and how you can help: