Recent estimates are up to 40 percent of all the vegetables grown by America’s farms are never actually consumed and end up wasted. This is a problem on many levels including the social and humanitarian with food insecurity and hunger not going away, the economic for obvious reasons, and the environmental because of where the wasted food often ends up – in landfills where decomposition releases greenhouse gasses. Let’s take a quick look at the reasons behind this 40 percent, the consequences of this monumental waste, and finally, what can be done to mitigate the social, economic and environmental damage that’s being caused.
How Food Gets Wasted
As pointed out in a recent PBS television documentary “Why Does Almost Half of America’s Food Go to Waste?” there are many points in the path from farm to dinner plate where wastage occurs. Perhaps the biggest impact is at the farm itself. Only the produce that meets certain standards of color and size, etc. is deemed marketable and is shipped to distributors. The slightly off-colored peaches and the misshapen potatoes either go to landfills or are plowed back into the soil.
So, what happens to the produce that actually makes it to the supermarkets? The truth is that supermarkets are responsible for approximately 10 percent of all wasted produce. This is because of overstocking, the use of “sell by” dates that do not accurately reflect the freshness of food items, and the reluctance of the public to accept items that do not appear perfect. The good news is that many human advocacy groups are now forming alliances with supermarket chains to channel some of this food away from landfills and to food banks that service needy people. Nevertheless, the level of waste at the market level is huge, and at this point in the food chain, there is no option to plow the wasted material back into the soil. Most goes to landfills.
The final step in the waste chain is your dinner table and the restaurants you visit. It’s been estimated that over 12 percent of the total municipal solid waste generated in American households is food scraps and less than three percent is recovered. The rest is thrown away and disposed of in landfills or combusted in incinerators.
The Cost of Waste
As previously mentioned, the cost of food waste in America can be assessed on humanitarian, economic, and environmental levels. On the social and humanitarian level, food wastage is a disaster, since these rejected fruits and vegetables have the potential to feed many hungry families. On an economic level, the waste is significant because it took expensive energy to grow the crops that are now being discarded. On an environmental level, the extent of harm caused depends on whether the wasted crops are being plowed under or are being trucked to landfills. The practice of plowing crops under to act as soil fertilizer is the least of two evils, while the use of landfills is an expensive and environmentally unsound alternative. The decomposition of food and other organic waste in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas 20-25 times more damaging to the environment than is carbon dioxide. Landfills are the largest human-related source of methane in the United States, accounting for 34 percent of all methane emissions.
Limiting the Damage
We’ve already touched upon some of the measures that can be taken to reduce the amount of food that is routinely wasted – or at least reduce the negative impact of the wastage. Of primary importance is the need to re-educate the public and create cultural change around what constitutes an acceptable product. In short, we need to get used to the idea that produce does not have to be visually perfect in order for it to be delicious and nutritious. The group EndFoodWaste.org is currently running a social media campaign that extols the virtues of “ugly fruit and vegetables.” In addition, groups like Feeding America, Food Finders, and City Harvest are making progress with campaigns to collect leftover produce from supermarkets and making it available to local food banks.
From an environmental perspective, the emphasis is increasingly on finding ways of processing organic waste that do not produce greenhouse gasses. The waste diversion industry is currently undergoing explosive growth – largely because Federal, State and Local Governments have been banning the disposal of organic material in landfills. As disposal of organic waste in landfills becomes more difficult and expensive, municipalities and businesses are finding it cost effective – as well as environmentally responsible – to invest in alternative disposal methods. These methods include incineration, which still releases carbon dioxide, and various recycling and reduction technologies – like the organic dehydration technology used by the Ecovim machines provided by IVS.
The food waste problem in America is complex in its causes and effects, and will require both cultural change and technology innovation to solve.