Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Food Waste: An Overlooked Issue; An Equally Overlooked Solution

By Elizabeth RenePublished January 13, 2021

Food recovery programs must be incentivized on both a state and national level to ensure food waste practices are equally discouraged among producers, suppliers, and consumers.
From over-purchasing within stores to the inefficient disposal of within landfills, food waste contributes to nearly 40% of the U.S. food supply going uneaten every single year. Policymakers need to address food waste’s substantial role in climate change to limit the unnecessary emission of greenhouse gases within food production.

From the time it is inadequately cultivated on a farm to the time it is carelessly discarded off plates, the aspects in which food waste is inextricably linked to the worsening climate crisis are endless. Policymakers need to address food waste’s substantial role in climate change to limit underlying anthropogenic contributors of climate change. 

Food loss and waste occur at every stage of the supply chain, from production and packaging to transportation and distribution. During the agricultural stage, food is commonly disposed of due to pest invasion, extreme weather, overproduction, and even unaesthetic disfiguration. From farming to transport, mismanaged handling and storage inevitably lead to increased losses in quality and further disposal, before even arriving at stores. Upon finally reaching the retail phase, food is again discarded on the mere basis of aesthetic quality by suppliers. In fact, a 2018 study found that at least a third of farmed fruit and vegetables are thrown out simply because of the arbitrary association between imperfection and a lack of freshness or quality.

When food is not lost to avoidable practices early in the supply chain, it is lost due to wasteful practices on the consumer end. An estimated 20% of consumer waste of perfectly edible food has been lost to consumer confusion over “use by” and “best by” date labels. Meanwhile, the American tendency to overspend at supermarkets and grocery stores further contributes to food’s unnecessary and premature disposal. Excessive purchases, coupled with excessive portions in restaurants and schools, ultimately lead to plate waste: a substantial source of consumer food waste by which prepared food is carelessly thrown out. 

From farms and factories to people’s forks, all these wasteful practices contribute to a staggering 40% of the food that goes uneaten in the United States each year. Considering that 10% of the world’s population is undernourished, and food insecurity in the United States has nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic, there shouldn’t be any other reason to prevent the third of global food supply going wasted every year. 

But as equally overlooked is the issue of food waste, is the role that food waste has in the current climate crisis. In fact, a country reflecting the aggregate sum of global food waste would fall right behind China and the United States as being the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. 

However, food waste’s impact on climate change should not be a surprise considering the extensive amount of energy and resources put into growing, packaging, and transporting food, which all goes to waste the second an item is tossed out. Not only does food production require as much as half of all land, but it also uses up to 80% of all freshwater in the United States. Globally, food production accounts for up to 10-12% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But this percentage fails does not even begin to take into consideration the amount of emissions released into the atmosphere before food is cultivated. Moreover, cropland conversion is the primary driver of deforestation, which further limits the planet’s ability to store carbon. When it finally reaches the end of the food chain, food rots within landfills and releases methane, a greenhouse gas 28% more potent than carbon dioxide.

Since food waste is continually overlooked as being a primary contributor to climate change, should it not be considered an equally overlooked solution to climate change? 

The fact that almost half of the food responsible for climate change never even reaches the plates of Americans is why food waste practices need to be replaced with federal food recovery programs and incentives. Federal standards need to incentivize coordination and compliance amongst farmers and producers, while limiting overproduction, mishandling, and arbitrary quality standards during every stage, from production to consumption. Just as food recovery programs could educate farmers and suppliers on limiting mismanagement in cultivation and storage, educational programs could discourage over-purchasing and wasteful practices among consumers and retailers. This includes the standardization of date labels to limit consumer confusion to therefore limit premature disposal. Furthermore, market-based incentives such as tax exemptions could encourage dissociation between the produce aesthetic and quality at the retail stage. 

Climate solutions typically aim at discouraging human activity involving consumption, but food recovery is a climate solution that directly targets human activity involving non-consumption. That being said, food waste as a contributor towards climate change is entirely overlooked. If policymakers want to prioritize climate action on their agendas, their agendas need to start addressing the undeniable relationship between food waste and climate change. 

Works Cited

Photo by Tyler Varsell