By Jonathan Marshall
If there’s one thing every politician pledges to oppose—Democrats and Republicans alike—it’s “waste, fraud and abuse.”
Since few of them seem able to root out those evils once they take office, here’s a suggestion on where to look: the dinner plate, or rather, what’s left on it.
According to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a staggering 40 percent of all food produced in the United States goes uneaten. That’s equal to 33 million tons—or more than 20 pounds of food per person each month.
“Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year,” the report adds, “but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land.” Adding insult to injury, the United States “spends an estimated $1 billion a year to dispose of excess food,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The environmental implications of all this waste are even worse than I had imagined. Most of us have read books or articles on the impact of America’s energy-intensive farming on soil quality, water supplies and air quality.
What I hadn’t realized is that all that uneaten food, left to rot in landfills, is “the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions,” in the words of the NRDC study.
Methane, as a reminder, is a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Some waste is unavoidable, but there’s no reason for so much excess. As recently as the 1970s, Americans threw away only half as much food. Surely that’s an achievable target.
The NRDC report notes that the European Parliament this year resolved to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2020. The United Kingdom has cut household food waste by 18 percent over the past five years with a public campaign called “Love Food Hate Waste.”
Worldwide, halving food losses could feed an additional billion people, according to a new study by researchers at Aalto University in Finland.
Given that tens of millions of Americans suffer what is politely called “food insecurity,” preventing food waste could be as essential to preventing hunger here at home as to saving money and the environment.
The EPA offers extensive resources for reducing food waste, including program ideas for diverting unneeded food to food banks. And the NRDC calls for a three-pronged attack on food waste, which includes all of us:
“The U.S. government should conduct a comprehensive study of losses in our food system and set national goals for waste reduction; businesses should seize opportunities to streamline their own operations, reduce food losses and save money; and consumers can waste less food by shopping wisely, knowing when food goes bad, buying produce that is perfectly edible even if it’s less cosmetically attractive, cooking only the amount of food they need, and eating their leftovers.”
Email Jonathan Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org.