Waste Not, Want Not

The Rhetoric and Reality of Food Waste

Food waste has become a high profile topic in the world of food politics and the environment. In the wake of a recent report, the New York Times wrote an editorial urging food waste reduction, calling it a “serious threat to the global environment and economy.” The United Nations estimates that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, and according to one expert, the amount of food wasted in the United States alone would be sufficient to feed 1 billion hungry people in the world. Jonathan Foley explained that smaller portions and eating more leftovers are some of the most effective solutions to increase food availability.

Food waste today has assumed a global, environmental dimension, but food and wastefulness has always been tied up in our broader societal values. In times of war and scarcity, preventing waste was a patriotic cause. During World War I, the US government issued posters declaring, “Food is Ammunition” and parents urged children to clean their plates while thinking of their brothers on the front lines. In times of plenty, waste was a problem of sinful excess. Medieval priests in Florence were forced to declare an edict in an attempt to regulate the lavishness of courtly feasts. More recently, many of us recognize the motherly dictum “Finish your dinner. There are starving children in Africa.”

Much like saying we should reduce emissions, calls to reduce food waste are hard to disagree with. Yet the solutions are hardly simple. For all the urgency surrounding reducing food waste, there is little discussion of how untested most of our solutions are, particularly in rich countries.

The truth is, there are two kinds of food waste, and we only really know how to solve one of them. Food waste is a problem in rich countries, where food is thrown out on the consumption end by grocery stores and households. But food loss is a problem in poor countries, where poor harvesting techniques and infrastructure lead to food loss on the production end, before it reaches consumers.

We know how to solve food loss, because we’ve already done it successfully in rich countries. What is still largely unanswered, however, is whether food waste reductions can be achieved in rich countries.

The UK-based Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has perhaps the best data on this question. The government-funded organization has conducted extensive work both to measure food waste and lead campaigns to reduce it at the commercial and household level. They released a report in 2013 that carefully measured the amount of food waste produced by UK households dating back to 2007. The data was gathered by a brave team who sorted through people’s garbage, weighing the volume of food waste produced.

The report shows that household food waste in the UK decreased 21 percent between 2007 and 2012. They are careful to caveat their conclusions, explaining that without a control group it is hard to determine exactly how much of an effect their advocacy efforts had. This led them to conduct an econometric analysis to assess the role of the global recession and rising food prices on food waste, ultimately concluding that WRAP’s efforts were responsible for about half of the food waste reduction.

The rub, however, is that between 2007 and 2011, the actual food supply in the UK stayed flat, according to the latest UN statistics. That is, the amount of calories available per person stayed the same. Andrew Parry, a Special Advisor at WRAP and one of the authors of the 2012 report, explained that at the per capita level, the volume of household food purchases decreased 4.5 percent in WRAP’s study period, and it is unclear why the food supply statistics did not reflect this.

Looking globally, rich countries vary hugely in the amount of food they waste. A 2012 study revealed that the US lost and wasted more than 1,400 calories of food per person per day, while for Germany it was only 729 and Japan only 471 calories. If all rich countries could waste as little as Japan, that would make a huge impact in the food system, but we don’t yet know enough about why these discrepancies exist and how to remedy them. Essentially, the question whether rich countries can achieve major food waste reductions remains an open one.

What we do understand more clearly, however, is how food loss manifests in poor countries. Without key infrastructure like electricity and paved roads, food spoils in unrefrigerated warehouses or is eaten by pests before it can reach markets. This is compounded by the fact that most developing countries are in warm and humid climates, which makes food spoil even faster.

Luckily, there is ample precedent for how to reduce food losses. Better harvesting techniques and refrigerated supply chains can ensure that more food makes it from production to consumer. Of course, this requires infrastructure like working roads and a stable electricity supply. These are items on every development wishlist, so steps to reduce food losses are also steps to promote broader development as well.

This development connection means that something as seemingly unrelated as Obama’s $7 billion Power Africa initiative to expand electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa would be an important step towards reducing food losses. After all, you need electricity to run a refrigerated warehouse. The Energize Africa Act of 2014 failed to pass the Senate, even with bipartisan support, but we can urge our Congress members to re-introduce this bill.

There are concrete development efforts that can help reduce food losses in areas where the food supply isn’t yet sufficient. But in countries where food is cheap and abundant, we will need a lot more smart people testing out solutions to know if we can achieve major reductions in food waste. Treating food waste as an obvious case of low-hanging fruit obscures the problem. There is a lot of work ahead.

Marian Swain is a conservation analyst at the Breakthrough Institute.

Photo credit: Biocycle.net