Food Waste on the Chopping Block

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Last Wednesday, one week before the Untied Nations General Assembly meeting in New York concerning sustainable development goals, the USDA and EPA divulged a bold new goal. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy announced the nation’s first food waste reduction goal: to cut U.S. food waste in half by 2030. The federal government intends to collaborate with charitable and faith based organizations, the private sector, and state and tribal governments to work toward this cut.

Setting such an ambitious target at the federal level is a big step forward for environmental efforts, particularly those pertaining to climate change. Food waste has been on the rise for years—one study estimates a 50% increase since 1974. Currently 30-40% of food produced in the U.S. for human consumption is lost or wasted each year.

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Food waste negatively impacts the environment because water, land, energy, and labor capital resources are expended to grow, produce, and transport food that ultimately feeds no one.  Uneaten, often wholesome, food comprises the largest percentage of municipal solid waste in U.S. landfills—totaling approximately 18%. Food waste rapidly decomposes and releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas (GHG) with 21 times more climate affecting potency than carbon dioxide. The 3rd largest source of methane is landfills.

Current federal initiatives relating to food waste reduction include the U.S. Food Waste Recovery Challenge and the EPA’s Food Waste Recovery Program. These initiatives encourage organizations and business to prevent food waste via “prevention, donation, and composting.”

Moving forward, the EPA and USDA plan to rally private sector actors to set their own reduction goals. However, the EPA and USDA will most likely also need to hone in on inefficiencies at the production, retail, and consumer levels of the food system to effect the change they seek.

Concerned legal scholars and food activists have campaigned for improving date labeling policies, permanently extending tax deductions for all businesses donating food to be repurposed, revamping the federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, and promulgating mandatory composting laws. Such solutions would certainly impact food waste at the consumer and retail level, where most food waste occurs.

As the December climate change negotiations near, the U.S. has an opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to national climate change mitigation efforts by working to reduce GHG emissions. Although the U.S. did not include food waste reduction as part of its submitted Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), reducing food waste could contribute to the country’s GHG mitigation pledges. Hopefully momentum will build around the problem of food waste in America and inspire progressive policies that will reflect U.S. willingness to work with other negotiating parties.