Produce left to rot in a field
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Produce left to rot in a field near Palm Beach, Florida; many large farms grow more produce than they sell and throw the leftovers away. 

CREDIT: Aaron Ansarov/Getty Images

From Farm to Trash

Every year, billions of pounds of food end up in U.S. landfills. Can reducing the amount we throw away help end hunger—and protect the environment?
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Food Waste In America

Bunches of fresh broccoli, spinach, and kale sit in a 15-foot-tall stack, ripe for the picking. The greens look good enough to eat, but there isn’t a single shopper in sight—and for good reason. The vegetables are piled in a landfill in California’s Salinas Valley. 

The area produces about 70 percent of U.S. salad greens, but not all of them reach consumers. Local growers regularly dump truckloads of vegetables into the landfill because the produce is misshapen, has minor bruises, or won’t stay fresh long enough to be shipped to stores across the country. There, it’s left to rot. And the worst part? The dumped vegetables are just the tip of the food waste iceberg. 

The United States throws away 40 percent of its food supply each year—about 130 billion pounds, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Worldwide, roughly one-third of all food produced goes uneaten. 

In addition to farms trashing edible vegetables, grocery stores regularly throw away older goods to make room for new ones, restaurants serve huge portions and toss their buffet contents every night, and many people dump leftovers from meals they don’t finish. At the same time, about one in six Americans lacks reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. 

Reducing food waste and ending hunger go hand in hand, experts say. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), we could feed 25 million Americans a year by trimming food waste by just 15 percent. 

In 2015, the USDA announced an ambitious goal: to cut the country’s food waste in half by 2030. That could have a huge impact on hunger—and the environment. 

“The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on Earth, but too much of this food goes to waste,” then-Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said when the initiative was announced. 

Tossing Edible Food

Cutting down on food waste across the country is a challenge, because losses happen at every stage of the supply chain. 

Consumers are among the biggest culprits, says Jonathan Bloom, a food-waste activist. According to the NRDC, Americans toss one-quarter of the food they buy—an estimated 20 pounds of edible food per person every month (see graphs, below). That’s twice as much as what the average American discarded in the 1970s. 

Americans waste more today because they buy more, Bloom says. Food is plentiful and relatively cheap, so consumers typically purchase too much, especially when it comes to fresh produce. People also store food improperly, sometimes refrigerating certain fruits and vegetables that last longer at room temperature. Others don’t think twice about tossing leftovers. 

Americans’ other bad food habit? Trashing goods by the “best by” dates. Those dates represent when a product is at its peak taste and texture, not when it stops being safe to eat. 

“If you’re treating those dates as the absolute truth on when food will go bad, then you’re going to be wasting a lot of food,” Bloom says. 

Farms are another top contributor to food waste in the U.S., he adds. Agricultural producers regularly leave misshapen vegetables and discolored fruits to rot on the ground. Why? The food industry has strict standards for produce’s shape, size, and color. Harvesting fruits and vegetables that don’t meet those standards can be financially draining for farmers. Pickers also skip over produce that they suspect will no longer be at peak freshness by the time it reaches stores. 

Some growers plant extra crops to make sure they fulfill their contracts with retailers. The overplanting can result in thousands of pounds of excess produce that never make it to stores or restaurants. 

“We’re still operating on this mind-set of maximum production,” Bloom says, “despite year after year of not using about 40 percent of our food supply.” 

Wasting food also wastes a tremendous amount of resources. About 25 percent of all U.S. water usage and 4 percent of all U.S. energy consumption go into growing and transporting food that’s never eaten, says Meghan Stasz, the director of sustainability for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. 

“When we throw away food,” Stasz says, “we’re wasting all the natural resources that go into making that food. That includes the water to make it, the diesel to drive it around, and the energy to produce it, pack it, and get it to the grocery store.” 

Tossing food also contributes to global warming. Food rotting in landfills around the globe releases 3.3 billion metric tons of methane and other greenhouse gases per year. That makes tossed food a significant generator of greenhouse gases. 

oddly shaped vegetables
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Oddly shaped veggies are often tossed by farmers who assume they won’t sell. 

CREDIT: Uli Westphal

Throwing Away $1,500 a Year

There’s also a real financial cost. In the U.S., a family of four throws away on average about $1,500 worth of edible food every year, according to the USDA. Reducing the amount of goods we toss could save Americans billions of dollars annually. 

To reduce food waste, some local officials have already started coordinating large-scale composting efforts. Composted food releases less greenhouse gas than food in landfills. 

Educating people is key, says Stasz. “Understanding the scale at which food waste happens is really hard to do,” she says. “You know you waste a little bit of food, but if you don’t work in the food industry, it’s really hard to wrap your head around the extent of what’s happening.” 

A California company called Imperfect Produce is trying to change perceptions of “ugly” or oddly shaped fruits and vegetables, so appearance standards can be eased. Other groups are encouraging consumers to trust their sense of smell, taste, and sight over “best by” dates. (Except for baby formula, the federal government doesn’t require expiration dates on food.)

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CREDIT: Jim McMahon

Farmers are getting on board too, looking for additional ways to use imperfect crops. Some employ
concurrent picking, in which the best produce goes in one basket for grocery stores and the rest goes in another basket for food banks. Other farmers allow nonprofit groups to harvest crops that would otherwise be left in fields. Growers are also working with juice companies to develop more products for less-than-perfect fruit. 

When it comes to stores, the U.S. government and nonprofit groups are partnering with retailers to find affordable ways to deliver extra goods to food banks. Some grocery stores are selling or donating food to feed livestock. The U.N. Environment Programme estimates that giving farm animals the food that humans waste could free up enough grains to feed at least 3 billion people a year. 

The U.S. could also look to other countries for inspiration on innovative ways to reduce food waste. In 2012, for instance, South Korea began charging by weight for garbage removal to discourage people from tossing food. France recently passed a law requiring big grocery chains to donate all unsold food to charities. 

Even individuals can make a big difference, Bloom notes. 

“I wholeheartedly believe in the contagiousness of action,” he says. “If you start doing things a tiny bit differently, your friends and family will take notice. It promotes conversations and provides opportunity to open [people’s] eyes to the problem of wasted food. There can be a real domino effect.” 

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The Challenge for Developing Nations 
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CREDIT: Ekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images
Food waste is a huge problem—but for different reasons

In the world’s poorest countries, about 40 percent of food is lost before it ever reaches consumers. Some developing nations don’t have the technology or tools to efficiently harvest crops, preserve produce, or store grains. Many also lack ways to keep dairy and fish cool and to transport fruits and vegetables safely. 

For example, mold, insects, and rodents destroy up to 20 percent of grains grown in sub-Saharan Africa—enough to feed 48 million people for a year. In India, 40 percent of the country’s fruits and veggies are lost because of inefficient harvesting, preservation, and transportation. 

Aid groups like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations are trying to tackle the problem. One way is by providing better food storage to try to ward off pests. In Afghanistan, grain losses dropped from about 15 percent to 2 percent after the FAO donated 18,000 metal silos. 

Low-tech tools for cooling and packing produce can also help. Teaching farmers how to preserve and dry foods can turn perishable goods into meals with long shelf lives. The changes also allow farmers to sell their goods for higher prices after peak season, when there’s less competition.

BY THE NUMBERS

    • 25%

      PERCENTAGE of Americans’ groceries that get thrown in the garbage.

      SOURCE: NRDC
    • 45%

      PERCENTAGE of all fruits and vegetables grown worldwide that are wasted.

      SOURCE: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 

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