April 8, 2016

Food Waste: Reality Check

The global population of 7.3 billion is growing at an annual rate of 1.1 percent—approximately 75 million people every year.  According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), feeding a world population of 9.7 billion people in 2050 will require increasing overall food production by about 70 percent.  Key challenges to accomplishing this include land and water availability and the need for innovative and new technologies to address labor shortages, mitigate climate change and increase efficiencies.  What we don’t often hear, however, are the disturbing statistics related to food waste.

The National Geographic magazine published an article recently entitled, “How Ugly Fruits and Vegetables Can Help Solve World Hunger.”  This story covers food waste data and statistics and points out that while nearly 800 million people worldwide suffer from hunger, globally close to 2.9 trillion pounds of food is squandered annually − more than double the food necessary to feed those in need.

In the United States, 40 percent of all the food produced is wasted—approximately $165 billion annually, according to a 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council report.  This is equivalent to 20 pounds per person per month—enough to fill 730 football stadiums per year.  These statistics on food waste present a staggering reality that should not be ignored.  Current food waste in the 21st century is a reality difficult to conceive considering the hunger of so many people and the challenges agriculture faces to produce more with less resources and inputs.

The term “food waste” may seem obvious to most of us, but what does it really mean?  The FAO defines food waste as the decrease of food from means other than consumption throughout the supply chain, from initial production down to final household consumption.  Approximately one-third of all food is spoiled or squandered before it is consumed.  Food waste represents waste of labor, water, energy, land and other inputs that went into producing that food, not to mention the release of methane, the second most prevalent greenhouse gas that is produced when this food ends up in our landfills.  While some food waste may be inevitable along our supply chain system, current numbers linked to food waste are concerning.  Reducing food waste sounds like a no-brainer, yet we all have different ideas about the problem and solutions.  So, considering the fresh produce supply chain from farm to fork, what are key current issues and potential solutions?

Farms and fresh produce processing facilities must adhere to quality standards required by government and customers (usually private standards are much more stringent than those established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture).  This greatly influences the amount of a crop that is not harvested, as well as finished product that does not make it to the marketplace.  According to an estimate by Feeding America, about six billion pounds of U.S. fruits and vegetables annually go unharvested or unsold primarily for aesthetic reasons.

Unfortunately, most of this leftover harvest or unsold finished produce is not donated; instead it is incorporated in the soil of harvested fields as crop residue or ends up in the landfill.  Fears of potential lawsuits have prevented some from donating food, but to this day, no lawsuits have been filed by beneficiaries of donated food.  In addition, the Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects those who donate food in good faith.  However, what has been a bigger obstacle to donate food is the lack of economic incentives to encourage donations.  After all, harvesting leftover crops or shipping unsold finished produce with the purpose of donating is expensive and not sustainable.

Typically, what is broadcasted as breaking news is bad news; very rarely positive news makes it to that level.  Consequently, we wonder why good news does not spread as quickly as bad news.  For instance, after speaking to some producers, I realized not everyone is aware of key provisions in the 2016 federal spending bill signed into law last December.  These provisions are meant to reduce food waste and increase food donations by making enhanced tax deductions for food donations permanent and available to all business entities.  Previous legislation did not benefit all businesses and needed to be renewed every year.  Under the new provisions, businesses are encouraged to donate food and establish long-term food donation programs.  This is good news!  In addition, other efforts at the state level are focusing on expanding these benefits.  For example, in California, Assembly Bill 1577 is meant to broaden the state income tax credit for donation of food.

Once food reaches retailers and/or final consumers, quality perception significantly impacts whether food is wasted.  Unfortunately, there is not a clear public or private best practice to ensure consumers and food sellers speak the same language when terms such as “best by,” “expires on,” “sell by” and “best if consumed by” are included on a label.  More than 30 different terms are used and are normally related to peak quality and not food safety.  Ironically, most food establishments and consumers discard food when these dates are reached mainly out of concern for food safety.  On a positive note, an increased awareness of this issue has started current discussions about potential labeling solutions at either the federal or state levels.

While food donations and clearer labeling information can reduce food waste, other efforts to assist with this endeavor include the use of food recycling programs or campaigns that encourage selling “ugly” produce (produce with visual defects that do not meet certain quality standards) at prices that will be attractive to consumers.  With regard to ugly produce sales, they are driven mainly by the private sector.  Early last month, grocer Giant Eagle became the largest U.S. supermarket to start selling produce with defects or, as their market campaign says, “produce with personality.”  A few days after Giant Eagle’s announcement, Whole Foods Market announced it will be joining Giant Eagle in this effort.

With regard to recycling programs, state level initiatives can play a big role in reducing food waste.  For example, in California, beginning on April 1, 2016, new mandatory commercial organic waste recycling requirements for businesses that generate eight or more cubic yards of organic waste per week (CalRecycle Initiative) are in effect.  This means that with a few exemptions, mandatory organic waste recycling programs have to be in place starting this month.

Finally, there are several other opportunities to reduce food waste, for example proper maintenance of the cold chain throughout the supply chain all the way to the consumer’s plate.  In general, increasing efficiencies in our food supply chain, having incentives to donate, and implementing policies to encourage food recycling are steps in the right direction to reduce food waste, but we cannot overlook consumer education.  It is important to inform and encourage consumers about their purchasing habits related to quantities, the importance of a higher tolerance for visually “imperfect” food, and practices that reduce food waste.  The food supply chain is ultimately all about consumers, and each one of us is a consumer.  The more responsibility each one of us takes in reducing food waste, the more positive results we will see.