IN a day and time when agriculture is under increasing pressure to produce 70% more food for 30% more people in 40 years, it's incredible that one-third of food production is wasted every year, yet that's the estimate from the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO).
In developing parts of the world, more than 40% of that waste happens on farms, during storage and in processing, but in established nations like the U.S., more than 40% of that waste occurs in retail stores and by consumers in their homes, Foodtank co-founders Ellen Gustafson and Danielle Nierenberg noted in a report earlier this month.
Food waste is not only a moral issue — people with food are wasting it while 1 billion people in the world go hungry — but a major environmental problem, Gustafson said.
She cited U.N. estimates that food production accounts for 70% of freshwater use and 80% of deforestation. She also said food waste means wasted labor and resources, and it produces damaging greenhouse gases while decomposing in landfills.
In the U.S., the Natural Resources Defense Council has put the cost of food waste at $165 billion per year and 25% of the country's freshwater use, Gustafson and Nierenberg said.
"Food waste is insidious," they said, pointing to waste that is often deliberate, such as in the U.K., where the Institution of Mechanical engineers has reported that 30% of vegetables are not harvested because of aesthetic standards and end up rotting in fields rather than reaching dinner tables.
Plenty can be done to reduce food waste, and small reductions can result in large rewards, they said, quoting food waste expert Tristram Stuart's estimate that reclaiming just 25% of the food wasted in the U.S. and Europe could end global malnutrition.
In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency launched the "U.S. Food Waste Challenge" earlier this month, calling on the U.S. food chain — including farmers, livestock producers, food processors and manufacturers, retailers, communities and other government agencies — to join them "in an effort to reduce, recover and recycle food waste."
Food waste in the U.S. is estimated at 30-40% of the food supply, according to the announcement. In 2010, an estimated 133 billion lb. of food in restaurants, retail stores and homes was wasted — an amount valued at $390 per person in the U.S., which is more than an average month's worth of consumer food expenditures, the announcement said.
U.S. agriculture is the most productive in the world and produces an abundant and affordable food supply, "but too much of this goes to waste," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
Not only could this food be going to people who are hungry and need it, but decreasing food waste is "an opportunity to reduce the amount of food that ends up in landfills," he said.
USDA and EPA, joining with other interests from across the country, can educate people about the food waste issue and start to address this national problem, he said.
Americans throw away as much as 40% of their food, and food waste is the largest single kind of waste entering landfills, EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe said. Addressing this issue helps combat hunger and save money, and it also helps combat climate change because food decomposing in landfills "creates potent greenhouse gases," he said.
By partnering with interests across the country, "we can ensure that food goes to families and others in need, not to landfills," Perciasepe said.
The Food Waste Challenge has a goal to have 400 partner organizations by 2015 and 1,000 by 2020, according to the announcement.
USDA said it is initiating a number of activities to address food waste, including activities to educate people about food storage and waste, decrease food waste in school meal programs and develop new technologies to reduce food waste.
Among other plans, USDA said it will create efficient procedures for donating misbranded but wholesome meat and poultry products and pilot test a meat composting program to decrease the amount of meat being sent to landfills from food safety inspection laboratories.
To join the Food Waste Challenge and learn more about USDA's activities and the activities of those who already have joined, visit www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/index.htm.
One of those partners is the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, which was created in 2011 by the Food Marketing Institute, Grocery Manufacturers Assn. and National Restaurant Assn. and includes more than 30 food manufacturing, restaurant and supermarket companies, as well as interests representing the anti-hunger and waste management sectors.
The alliance said it is pleased to have joined the USDA/EPA Food Waste Challenge to decrease food waste sent to landfills "by addressing the root causes of food waste within our operations and securing pathways to donate nutritious, safe food or recycle unavoidable food waste."
By joining the Food Waste Challenge, the alliance said it can better communicate its efforts "to outside constituencies" and collaborate and engage stakeholders throughout the food chain on best practices to decrease food waste. The alliance said it will publish a "best practices guide and tool kit" this fall to help individual companies "accelerate efforts to decrease food waste."
The alliance said it will also research, identify and report on key barriers that complicate or inhibit the industry's progress toward achieving its primary food waste reduction goals and recommend strategies to overcome those obstacles.
Food waste is becoming an increasingly significant issue as the world's population increases and as pressures on land, water and other resources mount, according to an analysis by the U.S. Economic Research Service (ERS).
ERS, a source for the USDA/EPA Food Waste Challenge, calculated that 133 billion lb. of food produced in the U.S. in 2010 — or 31% of the total 430 billion lb. of food produced — was not consumed.
ERS said this was due to losses from mold, pests or inadequate climate control, plate waste and other causes.
By weight, losses were divided fairly similarly among six of the nine major food groups, ERS said. Losses were greatest for dairy products and vegetables and least for the egg, tree nut and peanut group and the added fat and oil group (Figure).
Losses in the meat, poultry and fish group totaled 15.3 billion lb., the fifth-largest loss by group.
ERS said the size of the waste reflects loss-related characteristics such as shrinkage during cooking, perishability, consumer preferences and tastes and misjudging the amount of food to buy or prepare.