The Problems & Opportunities for Food Waste

01.26.2021

By: Kelly D’Amico

There are countless idioms in American culture that convey the importance of preventing food waste. These include: don’t waste food, there are starving people in Africa, Take what you eat, but eat what you take, and a personal favorite, don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach. These phrases have been passed down from the generations that endured the Great Depression and World War II war rations. During these times, food was considered much more sacred because food was rationed and distributed in finite amounts. Food loss, while less discussed, is evergreen in this mindset as well.

Since then, agricultural research scientists and farmers have worked together and made successful strides in multiplying the amount of food produced. Food has become readily available in developing countries, while underdeveloped countries face food insecurities and scarcities due to several factors, including distribution and agricultural practices. It is evident that there is an imbalance between the amount of food produced and those who are food insecure; however, there are many ways to counteract this imbalance in the United States and globally.

Food Insecurity Threatens Many

Food insecurity is a very harsh reality for many people worldwide. The FAO estimates that there are currently 820 millions people are food insecure, and face adverse health affects for inadequate nutrition[1]. Globally, one in nine people cannot consume proper nutrition to be considered healthy[1]. In Asia, approximately two-thirds population on the continent are hungry[1]. It is important to note that this number includes children as well. Poor nutrition is known to stunt the growth in children, and it causes nearly half of the deaths of children under the age of five[2]. Often times, people living in developed regions of the world are neglected in the discussion of food insecurity.

While institutions such as food banks are in place, the signs of food insecurity may not be as evident. In 2018, approximately 11% of US households were food insecure at some point. There are 37.2 million people that live in these food insecure households[2]. Often times, you will find that parents or caregivers will sacrifice their meals for their children. The number of households that face this reality accounts for 9.5 million adults in the United States alone[2]. There are six million children living in food-insecure households where food is not a guaranteed commodity[2]. Food scarcity and insecurity is a harsh reality for 820 million people globally, which comes with many severe consequences.

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Food Waste: Agricultural & Economic Impact

For generations, farmers worked to improve their agricultural crops and yields. With the support of science, technology, and genetic modification, production and yields have surpassed expectations. There is currently more food produced than can be consumed by the population in reasonable time. Today, farmers and food manufacturers produce enough food to sustain approximately one and a half times the population [3]. For this reason, nearly one-third of the food produced for human consumption is discarded annually[3]. This waste accounts for approximately US$ 680 billion in industrialized nations and US$ 310 billion in developing nation3. Fruits, vegetables, and roots and tubers contribute to the largest component of food waste[3]. Total food production for human consumption is about 900 kg a year per person in industrialized countries, which is almost twice the amount of food produced per year in undeveloped regions of the world at 460 kg of food per person [3].

The large amount of land area on the continental United States encompasses a diverse climate allowing a variety of crops to be produced. With states of varying sizes and climates, agriculture production occurs in every state in the United States[4]. United States Agricultural production, food, and other related industries contributed to $1.053 trillion to US gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017 and the farms alone composed $132.8 billion [4].  A large economic benefit results from farmers and related agricultural industries along with an adequate amount of food produced for consumption. Enough food is produced to feed and sustain the population, but the challenge is maintaining food integrity before consumption.  

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Food Waste vs Food Loss

The food wastage and food loss are two terms commonly misused and interchanged. Though they are closely related, they indicate different things. Food loss is any food product that is discarded, incinerated, or otherwise removed from the supply chain  and not used for any other purpose. Food loss also classifies food spoilage, including cooking loss, mold, pests, or poor climate control[5]. While food waste is discarding food based on quantity or quality of the food. It occurs when a viable food is discarded due to color or appearance.

Food waste also considers the waste that consumers discard as a result of an unfinished meal. Often times, foods that are close to, at, or beyond the expiration date are discarded by both consumers and retailers[5]. In both cases, food is not consumed either as a result of visual standards or spoilage. Finding ways to prolong the shelf life of the food or unwanted condition can be combatted with techniques such as climate controlled trailers for distribution and proper packing. 

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Sources of Food Waste and Food Loss

There are many factors which farmers, food distributors, and retail shops must consider in order to get food to consumers. As mentioned previously, approximately one-third of food produced for consumption is discarded. Food loss and food waste amount to a frivolous misuse of major resources. For example, the land farmers use to grow food and the labor that it costs to produce it are not often considered. The energy and natural gas used to process and harvest the food is utilized with no repercussions. The disposal of foods contributes to green house gas emissions which contribute to climate change. The FAO estimates that about 820 million people globally are food insecure[5]. The contradicting facts that there is ample food and hungry people are unsettling. To give food to the hungry sounds like aa simple solution, however, there are a number of challenges in achieving this goal. 

Agricultural yields and food production is strongly dependent on the region of the world it is grown and manufactured. Industrialized nations produce more food per year per capita. However, the waste and loss as a result is higher amongst the consumer in  these areas. Figure 1 demonstrates the relationship between regions of the world and where the waste occurs[5]. In regions where less food is produced per year, less food is discarded by the consumer. However, during the production, post harvest, and retail phase, there is a large number discarded in all regions [6].

The ratio of food loss by consumers vs post-harvest is much higher in developing regions. This could be a cause of a number of reasons, including food distribution. The physical infrastructure may be a hindrance in transporting food quickly enough to reach the consumer. Distribution capabilities may not be very advanced to accommodate climate-controlled transportation or even just food-grade vehicles. The shelf life of food may be limited based on the nature of the produce. Additionally, there may not be manufacturing capabilities to extend the shelf life of food products. By accommodating changes in these areas, the amount of food waste produced may be reduced. 

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The Type of Food Wasted Matters

FAO also evaluates food based on the classification of produce produced. Fruits and vegetables contribute to the largest amount of food waste. Approximately 45% of fruits and vegetables, along with roots and tubers, are wasted annually. This equivocates to approximately 1.7 billion apples[6]. On average, at least ten percent of the waste occurs in agriculture practices. In more industrialized regions, a large portion of the produce is discarded during the consumption phase6. In undeveloped regions, majority of the food waste occurs during processing and distribution[6]. Cereal grains have an average of 30% loss annually or 763 billion boxes of pasta[6]. Similar to fruits and vegetables, most of the loss occurs in the consumption phase.

In lesser-developed regions, a significant amount of loss occurs in agriculture and post-harvest [6]. Produce is not the only factor to consider. Meats and fish also face significant losses each year as well. Over 263 million metric tons of meat is produced globally, and over 20% on average is wasted[6]. This twenty percent of loss is equal to 75 millions cows[6]. Additionally, out the total amount of fish caught, thirty-five percent of the fish are wasted, or three billion Atlantic salmon. Meat and fish experience waste in fisheries and post-catch in all regions, but more so in under developed regions. In all regions, meat and fish are also waste during consumption, but the impact is greater in developed regions[6]. Food waste occurs in all food categories at significant levels.

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Food Shelf Life: An Added Obstacle

The obvious implication of food waste and food loss is that there is less food for people facing food insecurity. However, there are other implications that may not be as apparent. As mentioned, land, labor, water, and other agricultural products are dissipated during farming and distribution. Farmers also lose potential profit as a result of food waste during farming and post-harvest. Greenhouse gas emissions are produced as a result of food going to landfills. As shown in Figure 2, different foods produce different amounts of carbon emissions [5]. Cereal grains are some of the highest produced foods, but its degradation emissions produce 35% carbon emissions. Meat loss produces almost four times the carbon footprint as it does in waste. Educating consumers about the lifecycle and impact of food disposed and sent to landfills could support the reduction of the generated greenhouse gases.

The lifecycle or shelf life of the food is largely dependent on the nature of the food. While produce can be classified into many categories, there are two different types that explain spoilage: climacteric and non-climacteric fruits. A climacteric fruit exhibits an increased production of ethylene, a ripening hormone, in order for it to ripen[13]. Many fleshy fruits are considered climacteric, particularly stone fruits such as peaches, avocados, and mangos. Distributing fruits before it reaches its peak ethylene production is extremely important to the reduction of food waste. As the ethylene production rises, the fruit becomes stressed and reaches spoilage faster.

For example, bananas typically arrive to the store and have a green appearance. As the ethylene production rises, the bananas change from green to yellow but ethylene production continues with ripening and in several days, the banana will turn brown. At this point, consumers often reject eating the produce and increasing food waste. Scientists have a basic understanding of this mechanism, but are exploring the pathway production to better understand how to control this phenomenon[13]. There is a significant percentage of food that never is consumed due to food spoilage, loss, and waste. Understanding the lifecycle of the food can help support food distribution and potentially reduce loss of food.

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How to Combat Food Waste

The USDA has devised a hierarchy of the most desirable methods to reduce the implications of food waste. As seen in Figure 3, the order of least recommended to most recommended, the methods include: incineration or landfill, composting, industrial uses, animal feed, feeding the hungry, and source reduction[7]. The USDA is aware of the crisis involving food waste and insecurity in the  United States and defines this process as the Food Recovery Hierarchy [7]. While there are a number of benefits and drawbacks to using each method, it is evident that the source reduction and optimizing production are the most preferred methods.

Most food in developed countries is brought discarded in waste streams that end up in landfills. This waste is generated from home cooking, plate waste, and pre-consumer food waste. This waste stream is simple and widely used, so much so that there are two landfills within a ten mile radius of Rutgers University. Landfills generate green house gases, and the decomposition of food waste contributes to carbon emissions[8]. Food in landfills generates approximately 23% methane emissions, which cause 25x more damage to the ozone when compared to carbon dioxide[8]. Disposing of food in landfills had become a mindless process for consumers that continues to generate methane emissions.

Composting to fight Food Waste

Composting food waste can reduce the amount of carbon emissions generated from landfills. When organic waste, such as food or yard trimmings, breaks down, it can be added to soil to improve quality[9]. Composting food waste has many benefits when compared to food waste that resides in landfills. By composting, the amount of methane emissions is significantly reduced [9]. Adding compost to the soil reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and produces a higher yield for crops by adding nutrients to the soil [9]. Composting can actually reduce the cost of traditional soil alone because it enhances water retention in the soil[9]. Lastly, composing sequesters carbon by nature.

The EPA has a number of other propositions for the use of composting to improve soil quality, including bioremediation and preventing pollution, revitalizing soils that have been contaminated by explosives, controlling erosion, repairing turf, and providing nutrients in landscaping[10]. They also recommend using composting for disease control with plants and animals, reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization[10]. However, composting can take anywhere from three months to three years, prolonging the time it can be used. There are a number of benefits associated with composting, however, composting is not widely spread enough to consider it a cure-all solution to the food waste obstacle the population is facing today.  

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A number of companies have embraced the sustainable practice of reusing or repurposing. For example, up-cycling is the practice of taking something that was used for a previous intention and is then reused in a higher end application. This concept of up-cycling is seen in the new trend of spent grains in food. Spent grains are repurposed grains which were used to as the mash for beer are then drained and dried and reused in another food application such as crackers or breads. Another example of a product that larger companies have made investments in are the cosmetic industry. After pressing the juices and fruit from berries, residual skin from the fruit is then up-cycled into cosmetic products such as the Trader Joe’s facial scrub and used as a natural exfoliant[11]. However, products are not always sold as a premium.

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In recent years, the amount of animal feed that has been sold has significantly decreased due to strict regulations on GMOs in Europe. Many European countries have banned GMOs and will not purchase animal meal that comes from GMO corn. This leaves a large amount of animal feed to be discarded. While many American farmers still purchase the animal feed, a significant portion is decreased without the demand from Europe. Pet food has also been taking an overhaul with the movement of demanding better food for pets.

Many times, food waste will go into pet food simply because it does not meet specific standards for human food. Consumers are now demanding better products to feed to their pets, although they are still nutritious. Demands such as “grain-free” in pet food increase food waste that would have otherwise been repurposed. Up-cycling the waste stream is a great way to resolve the issue of food waste, but the market for animal feed and pet food is drastically shifting to a way that is not beneficial to the environment.

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Food Distribution is Easier Said Than Done

Feeding the hungry sounds like the most logical solution to resolve the excess amount of food, however it is much more complicated than it appears. Factors that influence food distribution are often greater than the intention to distribute the food. For example, the shelf life of the food may be shorter for some foods than others. As previously mentioned, a climacteric fruit would not be a suitable choice for global food distribution because it could spoil by its arrival time.

The infrastructure is also a factor in the food to be delivered, such as roadways for delivery and vehicles for transportation. Another concern with shipping food around the world is the impact on its carbon foot print. Many food banks will take food past expiration date and distribute to hungry people locally in their areas. Philanthropists such as Howard Buffet as demonstrated in his book 40 Chances work to teach better methods of food production and storage globally in order to reduce the number of people facing starvation. 

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Using Technology to Fight Food Waste

Over the course of time, people have become accustomed to disposing of food in the trash which goes directly to landfills. As previously discussed, landfills generate a large amount of methane. Engineers and scientists have developed Landfill Methane Capture Sites in order to counteract the effects of the emissions. The facilities can convert methane gases released from the landfill and converted to natural gas to power cities and cars as pictured in Figure 4. Facilities with capacities greater than 2.5 million m3 are required to install a gas collection system, while other individual sites have the right to decide if they would like to implement the technology[8].

The technology is in the early phases and still needs a lot of development. Additionally, the equipment is expensive to install and expensive to maintain. Careful measurements must be taken in order to ensure that there are no leaks within the system, as they can cause a concentrated release of methane gases, damaging the atmosphere at a rapid pace[8]. While the USDA does not currently recognize this method, it can be a beneficial technology if the facilities were improved and cost optimized. Currently, clay liners are used in the piping systems, and need to be replaced approximately every five years in the United States[8]. Landfill Methane gas captures are great tools in theory, but need development in cost reduction and in its technical feasibility. 

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It is evident that there are obstacles in every method to reduce food waste. Therefore the best way to ensure that food waste does not impact climate change and the carbon foot print is to reduce the amount of food wasted on an individual basis[7]. There are several ways to ensure this process will be sufficient, including to properly store food to give it a maximum shelf life. Only buy the food that is needed, this will reduce the amount of food spoiled and discarded. Cooking in excess often leads to waste; if there are leftovers, consider freezing them for a future meal. If there are dry ingredients left untouched in home pantries, consider donating them to local food banks. Lastly, there are opportunities to compost or utilize food waste for animal feed.

Final Thoughts

The next time a common idiosyncrasies involving food are declared, there are a few important factoids to keep in mind. The FAO reports that 820 million people are hungry or facing food insecurity. Farmers and food manufacturers produced enough food to sustain approximately one and a half times the population. Challenges in distribution, manufacturing, or agricultural practices may limit people from receiving food aid. One-third of the food produced is discarded. It is evident that there is an imbalance between the amount of food produced and those that are food insecure; however, with support from the USDA, the EPDA, FAO, and other organizations, the global population can work to reduce the environmental impacts of food waste and the number of food insecure individuals and households worldwide.

Resources:

1. “World Hunger Statistics”, Food Aid Foundation, http://www.foodaidfoundation.org/world-hunger-statistics.html.

2. Key Statistics & Graphics. USDA ERS – Key Statistics & Graphics, 4 Sept. 2019, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx.

3. Key Facts on Food Loss and Waste You Should Know!” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2019, http://www.fao.org/save-food/resources/keyfindings/en/.

4. Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials. USDA ERS – Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, 20 Sept. 2019, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/.

5. Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials. USDA ERS – Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials, 20 Sept. 2019, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/.

6. Key Facts on Food Loss and Waste You Should Know! Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, http://www.fao.org/save-food/resources/keyfindings/en/.

7.Food Waste FAQs. USDA, https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs.

8. Managing Food Waste for Sustainability: Landfills versus Composting. Food Production Systems & Sustainability, University of Wisconsin, May 2015, https://kb.wisc.edu/dairynutrient/375fsc/page.php?id=48783.

9. Reducing the Impact of Wasted Food by Feeding the Soil and Composting. EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 13 Nov. 2019, https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/reducing-impact-wasted-food-feeding-soil-and-composting.

10. Series of Five Fact Sheets About Uses For Compost. EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 8 Sept. 2016, https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/series-five-fact-sheets-about-uses-compost

11. Blueberry Açaí Facial Scrub. Trader Joe’s, https://www.traderjoes.com/digin/post/blueberry-acai-facial-scrub.

12. Help Make Animals Healthy and Owners Happy .Animal and Pet Nutrition, 2015, https://www.ingredion.us/applications/Animalnutrition.html.

13. Vendrell, M, et al. CLIMACTERIC VERSUS NON-CLIMACTERIC PHYSIOLOGY, International Society for Horticultural Science, https://www.ishs.org/ishs-article/553_84.

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