With prices rising and commodities becoming more precious, it’s never been more critical to be mindful of the commodities we do have at our disposal. But according to a new report conducted by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) project scientist Dana Gunders, in conjunction with the group’s food and agriculture program, that’s not exactly how things are shaking out. Gunder’s report, entitled Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm To Fork to Landfill (PDF), states that 40 percent of food produced in the United States every year goes uneaten and doomed to the landfill – and considering the amount that is put into the food production industry in terms of money, energy, and resources, that is waste which equates to $165 billion lost annually. What’s more, Gunders posits that even a 15 percent reduction of these losses could help feed 25 million Americans. Today we caught up with Gunders to talk about her report and how the food industry can help turn these losses around:
Food and Drink Digital: What is the biggest issue leading to such food waste?
Dana Gunders: I think the whole logic from the start is a little bit backward. Can you imagine walking out of the grocery store with three bags of groceries, dropping one, and then not bothering to pick it up? That seems ridiculous, but it’s essentially what we are doing throughout our food system right now. We invest an enormous amount of land, water, energy and chemical use, and that’s leading to pollution in our water and et cetera, and it’s all to grow food. If we’re not eating it, that’s a terrible use of our resources. Similar to the energy industry, we’d like to just see people’s focus turned to really increasing the efficiency of the system.
Right now, there are some ways that people can do that within their own sphere. There are also things we need to do collectively, because it’s going to take some collaboration across the industry to change some of the incentives that are currently causing waste.
FDD: What are some of those main things that need to change industry-wide?
DG: I think right now one of the fundamental basics is that everyone’s trying to sell as much food as they can, and that makes perfect sense from a business perspective. But sometimes what that leads to is promotions that are really encouraging consumers to buy more than they actually need. Particularly when those products are perishable, that can be problematic. It’s the “buy one, get one free” promotions where you buy a gallon of milk and get a second gallon of milk, and you didn’t actually need that and it goes bad before you’re able to use it.
FDD: Do you think making that kind of change here is doable?
DG: I do. In the United Kingdom they’ve been taking this issue a little bit more seriously than we have here in the U.S. for at least six or seven years, and they’ve really seen some fundamental changes. For that “buy one, get one free” example, for instance, they now have grocery stores trying different things out like “buy one, get one later,” or “buy one, give one free” where one’s being given away to a food bank when you buy one – so some different incentive options that are still promotions but are not encouraging people to overbuy in the same way.
FDD: Is there a particular reason why the U.S. hasn’t taken this issue as seriously as other countries yet?
DG: I’m not sure if there’s really a reason or if [the issue] just hasn’t been raised to quite the same extent here. [The European Parliament] have set targets to reduce their food waste by 50 percent by 2020, and it’s been pronounced that 2014 is “the year of food waste.” So they really set it as a national priority in countries across Europe. I think I can foresee it becoming a real priority issue here, particularly with all the attention to having nutritional options for people in low income areas. I think there’s a real tie with that issue, when we have all this fresh produce going to waste on one hand, and then on the other hand you have people saying that fruits and vegetables are too expensive for schools and for food deserts. I think there’s an opportunity there to dig into that reservoir of food that’s not being eaten right now and get it to people at a lower cost.
FDD: What is one thing people could start doing right now to make a difference in this issue?
DG: Look at your own refrigerator. Use up what’s in it, put the older stuff in front, use your freezer to freeze foods you won’t eat in time, and be really conscious at the grocery store. I think the easiest way to reduce our environmental footprint is to make sure we’re only buying what we plan to eat.
Gunders’ NRDC report is both thorough and compelling in its view that it will take cooperation from the whole agriculture supply chain to help cut down on loss, touching on everything from wasteful production practice to rethinking consumer habits to proposing government action to implement waste prevention campaigns. But it all starts with realizing there’s an issue in the first place. “Awareness is a great start,” says Gunders. “I think this is a promising solution – it’s a real win-win across the board for money in our pockets and food in our bellies.”