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Want to Guess How Much Food Is Tossed in Landfills?

Want to Guess How Much Food Is Tossed in Landfills?

15 April 2012

ANALYSIS - In the US, 67,000,000,000 (yes, that's 67 Billion) pounds of food made its way into landfills in 2010 alone, writes Sarah Mikesell, TheCropSite senior editor.

"It's important to note that this amount has doubled since 1974," said Kai Robertson, BSR Director, Food, Beverage & Agriculture Practice Advisory Services told attendees of Bayer CropScience's Ag Issues Forum in late February. "We now have 15 per cent of the population in poverty - 47 million Americans. If you do simple math, about 67 billion pounds divided by 47 million people, ends up with more than three meals per day. So every impoverished person in the US could be fed."

While people are starving not only in the US but around the world, perfectly good food is getting tossed in the garbage. Ms. Robertson said there are a lot of dichotomies when you talk about food waste and a lot of things that just don't make sense.

"Granted, of the 67 billion pounds of food in the landfill, not all is necessarily edible, but the large majority of it is, and could go to feed people," she said. "There are multiple dimensions to this problem, but clearly some people are hungry, while many of us are wasting food. It doesn't make sense."

From a societal perspective, in 2010 it costs the US about $260 billion in terms of the social economic cost of hunger, including the federal nutrition programs, she said. And that expense has continued. From a household perspective, 25 per cent of the food Americans bring into their homes is tossed. And that adds up - to the tune of about $2,200 dollars annually.

From a business perspective, they get to pay twice.

"Businesses pay for the food that they purchase to sell - they don't sell it - and then they pay for it to be removed," Ms. Robertson said. "From an environmental perspective, think about the amount of resources that go into the whole life cycle of a product - growing food and then processing, packaging, and transporting it."

From an energy perspective, calculations show Americans are wasting the equivalent of 350 million barrels of oil annually which is enough energy to power the entire United States of America for a week. That includes a lot of embedded energy - from fertilizers to diesel that's used throughout the life cycle of growing and producing food.

From a water perspective, food waste accounts for more than a quarter of total fresh water consumption globally. And food waste is also contributing to climate change. As food scraps decompose their organic matter, they create methane. With food scraps making up 18 per cent of the landfills and landfills accounting for 20 per cent of methane issues, billions of pounds of rotting food in landfills are emitting a significant amount of methane gas.

"We're living in a "throw-away society" - we're used to destroying things, just throwing them away, not even thinking about it. It's about changing consumer behavior."
Kai Robertson, BSR Director, Food, Beverage & Agriculture Practice Advisory Services

It All Adds Up

From farm to fork, there is waste happening across the food chain. Aside from the inevitable losses to weather, disease and storage, much of the loss is clearly unavoidable.

"The large majority of the waste is edible, and it's a result of choices - choices that are made across the food chain - by individuals, by businesses, by growers," she said. "The issues vary from the US and global perspectives. Globally, there's food waste happening all over the place. The losses in the developing world are much more farm relevant - production, harvesting, poor production practices. You have people who cannot afford to waste food, they need every last scrap, unlike the US and developed countries, where the waste is happening much more on the consumer side."

Opportunity to Reduce Waste

Ms Robertson said there's clearly an opportunity to reduce food waste today.

"At the grower level, some of the causes of food waste are diminishing returns when it costs more to pick and harvest the food," she said. "There are a number of reasons why farmers don't harvest all that they produce. Sometimes they plant more than they plan to harvest to hedge against potential losses like disease."

Storage losses are really where the least of waste happens in the US, but that's very different in a developing world context.

"There's corn and grain lost in route; there are spills; there's moisture-related damage. The average accepted losses are 5 to 10 per cent for commodities," she said. "Then there's the concept of 'only perfect', right? Consumers want perfect-looking produce, so disfigured produce goes to waste. Sometimes it's diverted to animal feed, but in many cases there's no home for it."

Feeding the 5,000 in London's Trafalgar Square, December 2011.

What Are Solutions?

One way is to build awareness of food waste. Last December in London's Trafalgar Square, 5,000 people were fed a free meal with food made entirely out of fresh misshapen vegetables that would have otherwise gone to waste. The event was called called Feeding the 5,000. The creative idea helped raise awareness of the food waste problem by letting them taste for themselves that the shape of the produce doesn't affect the taste.

ADM has founded the ADM Institute for the Prevention of Postharvest Loss with a $10 million grant. The global institute works with smallholder farmers in the developing world to help preserve millions of metric tons of grains and oilseeds lost each year to pests, disease, mishandling and other factors. Since its inception, the Institute has initiated research efforts in the United States, India and Brazil, has presented and sponsored conferences worldwide, and has instituted efforts to attract expertise to this important societal issue.

'Ag Against Hunger' is a California, USA group that works with 50 shippers and growers, to collect their surplus produce, work with volunteer cleaners, and provide it to food banks. Their goal is to alleviate hunger by creating a connection between the agricultural community and food assistance programs. Since 1990, Ag Against Hunger has brought 189 million pounds of produce to tens of millions of hungry children, adults and seniors.

Supply Chain Opportunities

There are issues within the food supply chain that create food waste. First, there is what's called 'ticking use-by clock', meaning "use by," "sell by," "best before" that try to tell you if your food is still good to eat. The UK just recently banned "sell by" dates, so the consumer isn't confused, Robertson said.

Second, there's a lot of what's called kitchen waste.

"At hotels, they regularly over-produce or over-purchase because they don't know how much every person will eat on a buffet line," she said. "They can guess, but there's a 4 to 10 per cent loss on average because it's not predictable."

Of note, San Francisco has made it mandatory to have zero waste by 2020, and they are mandating composting recycling and trash collection areas throughout the city. On a commercial level, restaurants have green bins, and staffers are trained on what to throw into each type of bin.

Cafeterias are now using food waste traffic systems to help them and food service providers track what food they are using/selling and identify where waste is happening. If you want to reduce waste, the questions to ask are "Where is it happening and why is it occurring, what can I do to change that?", Ms. Robertson said. The automatic systems have cut food waste 30 to 40 per cent and cut costs by 13 to 15 per cent.

Another issue is portion sizes have gotten bigger.

"There is a diet called "The 9-inch plate diet," she said. "Over time, we've gone from a 9 inch plate to 12 inch plate. Our waistlines, our portions and our waste have gone up commensurately."

Back in World War II, our parents did not waste food - we ate leftovers, end of story, she said, but our culture has changed over time. Today we can easily go and see friends and neighbors in their homes and what's the first thing we do - offer people something to eat. The cultural changes have resulted in a lot of plate waste at home, in cafeterias and in restaurants.

Food Waste Recovery Heirarchy was created by USDA and EPA to reduced food waste.

USDA and EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) have developed the Food Waste Recovery Heirarchy to provide options to the supply chain on ways to help reduce food waste.

  • Source Reduction - Reduce the amount of food waste being generated
  • Feed People - Donate excess food to food banks, soup kitchens and shelters
  • Feed Animals - Provide food scraps to farmers
  • Industrial Uses - Provide fats for rendering; oil for fuel; food discards for animal feed production; or anaerobic digestion combined with soil amendment production or composting of the residuals
  • Composting - Recycle food scraps into a nutrient rich soil amendment

"There isn't a silver bullet; it's very complex," Ms. Robertson said. "We're living in a "throw-away society" - we're used to destroying things, just throwing them away, not even thinking about it. It's about changing consumer behavior."

Sarah Mikesell, Senior Editor

Sarah Mikesell, Senior Editor

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