Some $165 billion in food thrown out

Aug 24, 2012
by DTN

Amid concerns that the current U.S. drought will lead to a short corn crop and higher food prices in the coming year, a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said food waste is compounding the problem in the U.S.

By most accounts, U.S. corn yields are likely to see a significant drop in 2012, and USDA has estimated that it would result in a 3 percent to 4 percent hike in food prices in 2013.

The new report, “Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40 percent of its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill,” points at holes along the food chain and offers ways to cut waste.

Dana Gunders, NRDC project scientist with the food and agriculture program and author of the report, said in a statement that food waste presents an opportunity.

“As a country, we’re essentially tossing every other piece of food that crosses our path—that’s money and precious resources down the drain,” she said.

“With the price of food continuing to grow, and drought jeopardizing farmers nationwide, now is the time to embrace all the tremendous untapped opportunities to get more out of our food system. We can do better.”

The study found that a total of 38 percent of grain products are lost to waste in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, while the same can be said for 22 percent of meat and 20 percent of milk.

The report also found that when it comes to grains, about 2 percent of those are lost during production and 2 percent during post harvest, handling and storage. In addition, about 10 percent is lost during processing and packaging, 2 percent is attributed to distribution and retail losses and about 27 percent by consumers.

The report said moving food to U.S. tables accounts for about 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land and uses 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the U.S.

“Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten,” the report said. “That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy and land.”

The report said that if food waste was reduced by just 15 percent, the U.S. could “feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lacks a secure supply of food to their tables.”

The report said the largest production losses are found in fresh produce. At the farm level, food loss comes from food that is never harvested, and food that is lost between harvest and sale.

“Given the variation and risks inherent to farming, it is difficult for farmers to grow exactly the amount that will match demand,” the report said.

“Produce may not be harvested because of damage caused by pests, disease, and weather. In other cases, it is due to economics. If market prices are too low at the time of harvest, growers may leave some crops in the field because they will not cover their costs after accounting for the costs of labor and transport.”

The report said growers tend to plant crops in excess of demand to “hedge against weather and pest pressure or speculate on high prices.”

The report points to food safety scares such as a 2008 warning issued by the Food and Drug Administration of possible salmonella contamination in tomatoes. Though the warning was unfounded “it created a negative perception among consumers and decreased overall demand. As a result, some 32 percent of total U.S. tomato acreage went un-harvested,” the report said.

In addition the report said labor shortages brought on by changes in immigration laws at the state level have led to crops remaining in the field.

“All told, approximately 7 percent of planted fields in the United States are typically not harvested each year,” the report said.

“This number can vary widely and can occasionally be upwards of 50 percent for a particular crop or operation.”

Six-year averages show that acreage left un-harvested is about 2 percent for potatoes, 8 percent for sweet corn and 15 percent for wheat, the report said.

The report offered several steps to pursue to cut food waste.

First, the U.S. government should conduct a comprehensive study of food losses and set national goals for food waste reduction.

State and local governments should set targets and implement food waste prevention campaigns. The report said businesses should try to get a handle on waste and adopt best practices.

“Americans can help reduce waste by learning when food goes bad, buying imperfect produce, and storing and cooking food with an eye to reducing waste,” the report said.

NRDC points to the success of a program in Europe designed to cut food waste.

In January 2012 the European Parliament adopted a resolution to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2020.

A public awareness campaign in the United Kingdom called “Love Food Hate Waste” has been conducted in the past five years, and 53 of the leading food retailers and brands in the country have adopted a resolution to reduce waste in their own operations and upstream and downstream in the supply chain.

“In just five years, avoidable household food waste in the United Kingdom has been reduced 18 percent,” the report said.

“The complexity of the issue cannot be ignored. At the heart are two basic realities that must be acknowledged upfront. The first is that food represents a small portion of many Americans’ budgets, making the financial cost of wasting food too low to outweigh the convenience of it.

“Second, there is the plain economic truth that the more food consumers waste, the more those in the food industry are able to sell.” — Todd Neeley, DTN