June/July 2020 Issue
Food Waste, Climate Change, and Hunger
By Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RDN, LD
Vol. 22, No. 6, P. 36
Opportunities to Make a Difference Across the Food Supply Chain
Food loss and waste are defined as the decrease in quantity or quality of food along its supply chain.1 Globally, 1.3 billion tons of food—one-third of all food that’s produced for human consumption—is lost or wasted each year.2-4 Meanwhile, about 2 billion people globally are overweight, and nearly 1 billion are
undernourished, highlighting the inefficiencies and inequities in food distribution.5,6
Remarkably, the wasted food is enough to feed as many as 2 billion people each year.7 Food waste has significant environmental impact as well; food loss and waste account for approximately 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, reducing food loss and waste could mitigate the negative impacts of climate change on environmental sustainability, reduce inequalities, promote economic security, address hunger, and improve nutrition.4,6,8-10
Along the worldwide food supply chain, about 14% of food produced is lost between the harvest stage and the retail stage, with Central and South Asia, North America, and Europe accounting for the biggest shares.1,11 Food waste studies at the consumer stage are confined to high-income countries where waste levels are particularly high for perishable foods such as animal products, fruits, and vegetables.1
Food Waste in the United States
In 2017, the Natural Resources Defense Council reported that up to 40% of the food supply goes uneaten in the United States.12,13 According to the USDA, an estimated 30% to 40% of the US food supply is wasted.14 Millions of Americans are unsure where their next meal will come from, while 133 billion lbs of food is wasted per year.13,15 In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the USDA announced a national goal to reduce food loss and waste by one-half by 2030. In 2018, the FDA joined the EPA and USDA in these efforts.13
In 2019, the US Government Accountability Office identified three key challenging areas that may hinder achieving the 2030 goals: 1) limited data and information, 2) lack of awareness and education, and 3) limited infrastructure and capacity. Clearly, achieving the national reduction goals requires action across the food supply chain and collaboration among federal agencies and nonfederal stakeholders such as states, businesses, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations.13 Coordination examples include encouraging institutions to purchase so-called “ugly” produce, which would help farmers find new markets for healthful products that currently go to waste.15
Federal agencies also could coordinate with state and local governments to standardize food date labels. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Congressman Dan Newhouse (R-Washington) introduced the Food Date Labeling Act of 2019, a bill designed to end consumer confusion around food date labeling and ensure that Americans don’t throw out perfectly good food. If passed into law, the legislation would standardize date labeling for quality and safety across food products and contribute to educating the public on reducing food loss and waste.15,16
In general, date labels on packaged foods aren’t required by federal regulations, except in the case of infant formula. Variation in the use of introductory phrases for date labels such as “best by,” “sell by,” “use by,” “best if used by,” and “expires on” by packaged food manufacturers often results in consumer confusion about the meaning of the labels.16 The bipartisan Food Date Labeling Act of 2019 establishes an easily understood food date labeling system: “BEST If Used By” communicates to consumers that the quality of the product may begin to deteriorate after the date, and “USE By” communicates the end of the estimated period of shelf life, after which the product shouldn’t be consumed.
Under the legislation, food manufacturers will decide which food products carry a quality date or discard date. This legislation also will allow food to be sold or donated after its labeled quality date, helping more perfectly good food to reach those who need it.15
More recently, Pingree and Newhouse, along with Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-Oregon), introduced the School Food Recovery Act of 2020 into Congress. The bill, if passed, would create a new program at the USDA to support schools working on food waste reduction projects. Eligible grant activities would include food waste measurement and reporting, prevention, education, and reduction projects, involving purchasing equipment and providing training.17
A recent World Wildlife Fund report on school food waste found that food waste could be costing as much as $9.7 million per day, or $1.7 billion every school year. The report states, “While this also represents a loss of environmental resources, perhaps most importantly, this food waste represents lost nutrition. By raising awareness through regular measurement, student empowerment, and waste reduction initiatives, schools can potentially achieve significant savings to avoid disposal costs. These savings can be reinvested back into foodservice programs to improve the nutrition, health, and well-being of the student population, while also establishing the cafeteria as a real-world learning environment and classroom for students.”18
Initiatives to Mitigate Food Loss and Waste
In September 2015, 193 member states of the United Nations adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.19 These goals aim to reduce poverty and hunger, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.4,20
The 2030 agenda includes food loss and waste reduction targets such as halving per capita global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030.21 Reducing food loss and waste also contributes to other Sustainable Development Goals, including the Zero Hunger goal, sustainable water management, climate change, and terrestrial ecosystems, forestry, and biodiversity.22-25
Project Drawdown, a global research organization that identifies and communicates the most viable solutions to climate change, ranks reducing food waste as the No. 3 action item out of 80 solutions, meaning more than 70 billion tons of greenhouse gases could be prevented from being released into the atmosphere by 2050.26-29
Different countries have varying priorities guiding their choices to reduce food loss and waste. Such interventions are justified by net economic benefits to society, improved food security and nutrition, and environmental sustainability.
Low-income countries likely will focus on improving food security and nutrition as well as sustainable management of land and water resources. In these countries, by reducing food loss and waste in the early farm level of the supply chain (upstream), the positive impacts will be the strongest where losses tend to be the largest.1
In contrast, high-income countries with low levels of food insecurity likely will place emphasis on environmental objectives, which require interventions later in the food supply chain, particularly retail and consumption (downstream), where levels of loss or waste are the highest.1
The World Resources Institute, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, proposes a three-pronged global action agenda to reduce food loss and waste. First, governments and companies are encouraged to adopt a target to halve food los and waste by 2030, measure progress, and take action on the hotspots. The points of consumption in households and restaurants are considered a hotspot of food loss and waste in high-income regions, whereas losses during handling and storage are a hotspot in low-income regions. On-farm production losses—both during and after harvest—are an issue in multiple places.4
Second, all actors within the food supply chain should pursue a sector-specific to-do list. For example, crop farmers can engage their customers to explore changes in quality specifications, enabling more of what’s harvested to be sold. Packing houses can build near-farm facilities to convert unmarketable crops and byproducts into value-added products. Retailers can educate consumers about better food management such as how to store food correctly. And third, governments and business leaders should pursue “scaling interventions” to accelerate the impact of sector-specific actions.4
These interventions tackle food loss and waste across the entire supply chain, target numerous food loss and waste hotspots, and enable the policy and financial conditions that are necessary for success. They range from developing national strategies for reducing food loss and waste and shifting consumer social norms to perceiving wasting food as unacceptable to overcoming the deficit in data on how much food is lost and wasted in countries and businesses.4
Strategies for Consumers to Reduce Food Waste
Ethically, reducing food loss and its social acceptance is the right thing to do. No matter how small a single action, consumers have an important role to play. Clients and dietitians alike can practice the following strategies to reduce food waste:
• Ask for smaller food portions. Serve smaller portions of food at home or share large dishes with friends and family at restaurants.
• Love your leftovers. Instead of throwing leftovers away, use them as ingredients for the next day’s meal. In addition, store leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours of preparing a meal.
• Create a shopping list and stick to it. Recommend clients plan ahead for food purchases to prevent them from buying too much food during a shopping trip.
• Become a meal planner. Encourage clients to track and plan what they will eat each week before heading to the store. That way, they’ll know exactly what ingredients to buy to create their meals and avoid buying food they don’t need.
• Buy ugly fruits and vegetables. Many grocery stores, supermarkets, and farmers’ markets sell irregularly shaped fruits and vegetables and those with small bruises or discoloration. If this produce goes unpurchased, some of it will be discarded as waste.
• Check your refrigerator. Advise clients to set their refrigerator temperatures between 34˚ and 41˚ F (1˚ to 5˚ C) for maximum freshness and shelf life.
• Don’t overfill the refrigerator with food. The refrigerator will use less energy, and clients will be less likely to waste food they don’t eat.
• Practice the “first in, first out” rule. Suggest clients rotate the older food items in their fridge and cupboards from the back to the front, so the most recently purchased items go to the back.
• Understand dates on food packages. Teach clients the difference between “use by,” the date by which a food should be eaten, and “best before,” the date indicating that the food’s quality is best before that date.
• Turn waste into compost. Compost is organic material clients can add to the soil in their outdoor and indoor gardens to help plants grow. It helps soil retain moisture, decreases the need for chemical fertilizers, lowers methane gas emissions from landfills, and provides other benefits. Clients can begin by setting up a bin for food waste that can include fruit and vegetable peelings, but they’ll need additional components to complete the process. Suggest they visit www.epa.gov/recycle/compostinghome for more information.
• Donate surpluses. Recommend clients give surplus food to those in need. They can contact food banks/food pantries and faith-based organizations in their communities and donate food.30,31
For more information on food loss and waste and how to reduce it, see the sidebar, “Food Waste Resources,” for a list of websites that provide toolkits, reports, apps, and other information dietetics professionals can use in their day-to-day research and practice.
— Christine McCullum-Gomez, PhD, RDN, LD, is a writer, speaker, and consultant. Her areas of expertise include environmental nutrition, food and nutrition policy, population-based approaches to nutrition and health, and sustainable food systems. Her personal website is www.sustainablerdn.com.
1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The state of food and agriculture: moving forward on food loss and waste reduction. http://www.fao.org/3/ca6030en/ca6030en.pdf. Published 2019. Accessed October 16, 2019.
2. Food loss and food waste. Food and Agriculture of the United Nations website. http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/. Accessed December 15, 2019.
3. Flynn D. GAO report examines how date label confusion contributes to food waste. Food Safety News website. https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2019/09/gao-report-examines-how-date-label-confusion-contributes-to-food-waste/. Published September 13, 2019. Accessed September 13, 2019.
4. Flanagan K, Robertson K, Hanson C; World Resources Institute. Reducing food loss and waste: setting a global action agenda. https://wriorg.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/reducing-food-loss-waste-global-action-agenda_1.pdf. Published 2019. Accessed August 30, 2019.
5. Simmons D. A brief guide to the impacts of climate change on food production. EcoWatch website. https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change-food-production-2640810845.html?rebelltitem=1#rebelltitem1. Published October 5, 2019. Accessed December 5, 2019.
6. Barioni LG, Benton TG, Herrero M, et al; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Chapter 5: food security. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2019/08/2f.-Chapter-5_FINAL.pdf. Published July 8, 2019. Accessed August 8, 2019.
7. Huber C. World’s food waste could feed 2 billion people. World Vision website. https://www.worldvision.org/hunger-news-stories/food-waste. Published November 23, 2017. Accessed June 24, 2019.
8. Land is a critical resource, IPCC report says. United Nations Environment Programme website. https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/land-critical-resource-ipcc-report-says. Published August 8, 2019. Accessed August 8, 2019.
9. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate change and land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems: summary for policymakers. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2019/08/4.-SPM_Approved_Microsite_FINAL.pdf. Published August 7, 2019. Accessed August 8, 2019.
10. Responding to Congresswoman Pingree’s request, GAO releases food date labeling report. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree website. https://pingree.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=3137. Published September 9, 2019. Accessed September 12, 2019.
11. de Sousa A. The world losses $400 billion of food before it reaches stores. Bloomberg website. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-14/the-world-loses-400-billion-of-food-before-it-reaches-stores. Published October 14, 2019. Accessed October 16, 2019.
12. Natural Resources Defense Council. Wasted: how America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill: second edition of NRDC’s original 2012 report. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-2017-report.pdf. Published August 2017. Accessed June 21, 2019.
13. United States Government Accountability Office. Food loss and waste: building on existing federal efforts could help to achieve national reduction goal. https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/699911.pdf. Published June 2019. Accessed June 24, 2019.
14. Held L. A new bill aims to fix food waste in schools. Civil Eats website. https://civileats.com/2020/01/16/a-new-bill-aims-to-fix-food-waste-in-schools/. Published January 16, 2020. Accessed January 16, 2020.
15. Pingree, Newhouse introduce House bill to standardize food date levels, cut food waste. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree website. https://pingree.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=3124. Published August 1, 2019. Accessed August 4, 2019.
16. United States Government Accountability Office. Date labels on packaged foods: USDA and FDA could take additional steps to reduce consumer confusion. https://www.gao.gov/assets/710/701238.pdf. Published September 2019. Accessed September 16, 2019.
17. Pingree, Newhouse, Bonamici introduce bipartisan bill to prevent food waste in nation’s schools. Congresswoman Chellie Pingree website. https://pingree.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=3230. Published January 16, 2020. Accessed January 16, 2020.
18. World Wildlife Fund. Food waste warriors: a deep dive into food waste in US schools. https://c402277.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com/publications/1271/files/original/FoodWasteWarriorR
_CS_121819.pdf?1576689275. Published 2019. Accessed January 16, 2020.
19. Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform website. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/?menu=1300. Accessed November 15, 2019.
20. Sustainable Development Goals: overview. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website. http://www.fao.org/sustainable-development-goals/overview/en/. Accessed November 15, 2019.
21. Sustainable Development Goal 12: ensure sustainable consumption and consumption patterns. Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform website. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg12. Accessed November 15, 2019.
22. Sustainable Development Goal 2: end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform website. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg2. Accessed November 15, 2019.
23. Sustainable Development Goal 6: ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform website. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg6. Accessed November 15, 2019.
24. Sustainable Development Goal 13: take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform website. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg13. Accessed November 15, 2019.
25. Sustainable Development Goal 15: protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform website. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg15. Accessed November 15, 2019.
26. Hawken P, ed. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York, NY: Penguin Books; 2017.
27. Project Drawdown website. https://www.drawdown.org/. Accessed June 24, 2019.
28. Frischmann C. The climate impact of the food in the back of your fridge. The Washington Post. July 31, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/07/31/food-waste/. Accessed June 24, 2019.
29. Foley J. Farming our way out of the climate crisis. Medium website. https://globalecoguy.org/farming-our-way-out-of-the-climate-crisis-c235e1aaff8d. Published August 7, 2019. Accessed August 10, 2019.
30. 9 tips for reducing food waste and becoming a #ZeroHunger hero. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website. http://www.fao.org/zhc/detail-events/en/c/889172/. Accessed September 12, 2019.
31. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Do good: save food! http://www.fao.org/3/a-i7059e.pdf. Accessed September 12, 2019.