The Food Waste You Don’t See

40 percent of food ends up in the landfill before it hits the supermarket.

The headlines are alarming: Americans Generate $200 Billion in Food Waste Per Year. Produce Left Rotting in the Field. Uncovering the Global Food Scandal.

As awareness of food waste goes mainstream—one report found that more than half of Americans recognize food waste is a problem—a growing number of consumers are taking on the roles of food waste warriors, doing their part to reduce the amount of fresh, edible foods being sent to the landfill.

An average of $218 billion in food is wasted every year in the U.S. alone. Each overripe banana, bruised peach, undersized, odd-looking carrot and pepper or gallon of milk past its “best before” date that ends up in the trash pile contributes to environmental disaster. Food waste is a significant contributor to climate change, creating more than 2.6 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. Moreover, it takes significant amounts of land, water and fertilizer to grow food that is never eaten.

While meal planning, eating leftovers and using overripe produce in baked goods are essential to tackling the problem, a significant portion of food waste occurs long before it ends up in refrigerators across America.

“There are losses all along the supply chain,” explains JoAnne Berkenkamp, senior advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In some cases, fresh produce never even leaves the field. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 33 percent of food waste occurs during agricultural production. All of the edible but unconsumed food takes up 1.4 billion hectares of land—about 30 percent of global agricultural land area.

Farmers often plant excess crops to guard against losses from pests, disease or natural disasters. If market rates are too low when the produce is ripe, it costs farmers more to harvest and transport fresh produce than the food is worth. Too often, this gorgeous edible produce is left rotting in the fields.

In 2017, an extension agent in Hendry County (Florida) reported seeing a 100-acre field of tomatoes left unharvested. He told reporters it was one of many farms across the county where the economics of getting produce to market didn’t add up: Farmers were earning $3 to $5 per box of tomatoes but the break-even price was $10 per box.

Labor shortages are also to blame. Last summer, several news outlets reported a lack of migrant farm labor for crops not being picked. With no one to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables, farmers have no options to get produce from field to table, resulting in unplanned food waste.

Harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables might not be enough to guarantee the produce will make it to our tables.

Buyers often reject produce that fails to meet what Berkenkamp calls “exacting specifications” for size, shape, color and texture. In other words, only the prettiest fruits and vegetables make the cut for the produce aisle.

Farmers are aware of the standards and choose their best produce to send to supermarkets but a lot of the undersized, odd shaped produce that is sent to manufacturing facilities to be used in tomato sauce, canned fruits and vegetables, juice and other value-added products succumbs to waste. Edible portions like peels are removed and packaging errors lead to surplus product, sending more food into the waste stream.

Food that makes it off the farm and through processing facilities can still end up in the landfill thanks to improper handling such as temperature fluctuations during shipping that cause food to go bad; backups at loading docks can take product past its shelf life; and rejected shipments thanks to ordering errors or market fluctuations can also cause produce to spoil.

In supermarkets, produce is removed from store shelves and sent to landfills when “best before” dates on food labels have passed, inventories go unsold or perishable items in delis and bakeries are discarded after a pre-determined time period (even if the food is still safe to eat).

Carina Millstone, executive director of Feedback, a global nonprofit working to end food waste, calls the current food system unfair and unstable, noting, “The biggest barrier ultimately is a food system dominated by a handful of supermarkets…driven by profit generated through the sales of cosmetically perfect produce at prices that is on no way reflects the environmental impact of its production.

“Our research and investigations across the globe have shown considerable concentration of power in the grocery sector which allows supermarkets to dictate the terms in which food is grown, harvested and transported, especially when sourcing from smaller scale producers,” she adds.

Reducing food waste starts with lawmakers

In its 2017 report, Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork, the NRDC suggests enacting laws to minimize food waste, including incentivizing food waste reduction strategies through the next Farm Bill; establishing national food waste reduction goals; and expanding tax incentives to remove barriers to food donations.

Significant investments are also being made to address food waste in the private sector.

Tesco supermarkets in the UK became the first in the world to agree to measure and disclose supply chain waste, revealing that 19,000 metric tonnes of edible foods went to landfills; fresh produce and bakery goods accounted for 64 percent of food waste.

In the U.S., Compass Group introduced its Imperfectly Delicious Produce program to purchase fruits and vegetables that would otherwise go to the landfill (based on appearance, not freshness or flavor) and include them in menus at hospitals, universities, senior living communities and other Compass-served facilities. Since the 2014 launch, 16 states (and counting) have signed on.

Millstone applauds the efforts but has concerns about their ability to move the needle on food waste, explaining, “Initiatives to tackle food waste in the supply chain are primarily voluntary initiatives that have yielded some positive results but are not ambitious enough.”

Belkenkamp would like to see “major shifts in business practices” to help minimize food losses but admits that farmers, distributors and grocers are just part of the problem: 40 percent of food is wasted at home: It’s the overripe produce rotting in the back of the refrigerator and uneaten leftovers that are tossed in the trash.

To address the issue of food waste, consumer involvement is essential

“More consumers need to understand how food is wasted at all levels of the supply chain,” Belkenkamp says. “We’ll start to see meaningful change when consumers encourage businesses to change the practices that drive waste and reward the ones that do with their food dollars.”


Photo: Gary Chan Unsplash