Food Waste Is An Animal Advocacy Issue
Imagine sitting down to a meal and before you start eating, throwing 40% of the food on your plate into the trash. You wouldn’t do that, would you? And yet, the U.S. does just that every year, wasting about 40% of the food it produces. We throw out more than 400 pounds of food per person every year. This costs a household of four $1,800 annually according to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) in its 2017 report, Wasted.
Wasting food also wastes the resources used to produce that food and contributes at least 2.6% of the country’s greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. This is equivalent to the GHG’s from about 15% of cars on the road, or about one in seven. A recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that we send 35 million tons of food to landfills each year, where it emits methane gas while decomposing. But worst of all, at least for animal advocates, is the wasted meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood. The animals that produced this food suffered and essentially “died in vain” to feed our endless appetite for cheap, plentiful, and convenient food.
It’s important to understand that food waste doesn’t just happen at the dinner table, but rather, food is lost all the way from field to fork. According to the NRDC report, farms generate 16%, or one-sixth of the waste. Manufacturers contribute just 2%, while grocery stores and food distribution add another 13%. About a quarter of the waste (26%) comes from restaurants and institutional food services such as schools and the armed forces. The remaining 43% of food waste comes from consumers. Within the waste stream, just over one-fifth, 21.2%, comes from dairy and eggs. Meat, poultry, and seafood account for 11.5% of the total, and grains, another 13.9%. Almost one-third, 32.9% of fruits and vegetables get thrown away. Rounding out the total, added sweeteners and fats contribute 20.1%, and nuts, just 0.4%.
The causes of food losses are numerous and differ by where the waste occurs. Farmers may overproduce to hedge against risk and then let a crop rot in the field when prices make harvest uneconomical. Fruits and vegetables that do not meet cosmetic standards may never find their way to the produce bin in a grocery store. Food contamination can result in the recall of millions of pounds of meat or produce. By-catch results in the waste of as much as 50% of seafood and is the cause the death of untold numbers of fish and marine mammals. In the grocery store, poor stock management can lead to food which can’t be sold. Preparing too much food in a deli near the end of the day and oversized restaurant portions can result in large amounts of food being dumped in the trash.
But the biggest source of waste is consumers. They represent two-thirds of the total economic value of wasted food, according to ReFED’s A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste. The value of household food waste is higher because of the large volumes, the cost of food sold at retail, and high cost of meat in the waste stream. Our current rate of food waste is twice that of the 1970’s. According to the NRDC, households account for 238 pounds of food waste per person per year at a cost of $450 per person. And this may understate the amount since it doesn’t include the waste in household gardens, which by one estimate could add another 15% to the total.
Research by the EPA determined that consumers never eat 41% of the fruits and vegetables they buy, 31% of seafood, 21% of meat, 21% of the eggs, and 20% of the dairy. In a 2019 survey by FoodInsight.org, consumers reported that the most commonly wasted foods were items prepared at home, followed by fresh produce and restaurant leftovers. Spoilage was the main reason that food was thrown away. Food loss from households also wasted the most resources because it’s been transported, stored, and often cooked before it’s tossed out. Of that discarded food, surveys suggest that between one-third and two-thirds is still edible.
Several factors drive food waste by consumers. Most people simply don’t know how much food they waste. The FoodInsight.org survey found that 34% of people do think about food waste while grocery shopping, but only 19 % think about it when dining out. Because so much food is cheap, we undervalue it and don’t think much about throwing it away. Since the 1950’s, food as a percentage of household expenses has fallen by half from 20% of 10%, reducing the incentive to be mindful of food costs. Few of us keep a scale in our kitchens to measure the amounts we throw in the trash or down the disposal. Even the size of refrigerators has an effect. We like the sight of a full fridge, so the sheer volume of space inside today’s units makes it easier than ever for leftovers to get lost on a back shelf.
A lack of knowledge about proper food storage or how to use up leftovers or small quantities of food left after preparing a recipe also leads to significant food waste. Lack of meal planning when going to the grocery store is another culprit. As much as 55% of food purchases are unplanned. This problem is exacerbated by the lure of sales, bulk buys and two-for-one offers that lead us to buy food we don’t need and won’t eat. Even if we do everything right at the grocery store, we still may overestimate how much to cook.
Recipe sizes have increased along with plate sizes, making it even more likely that a home cook will prepare and serve too much food. We may end up eating out unexpectedly, leaving food to spoil unless we make the effort to freeze or otherwise re-purpose it. And then there are the date labels. “Best, by”, “sell by”, ”use by” and others create tremendous consumer confusion. People look to these labels to figure out at what point the food will make them sick. Since most of the labels have no safety implications, they just lead people to throw away perfectly edible food.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set a goal to cut food waste in the country by 50% by 2030. The EPA also developed a Food Recovery Hierarchy to prioritize efforts to reduce food losses. While donating and recycling food can help, preventing surplus food from being produced in the first place will have the greatest benefit. ReFED reached the same conclusion, finding that prevention creates three times the societal economic value as recycling and recovery combined. Prevention conserves resources and reduces GHG’s and other pollutants released by agricultural production. Indeed, in terms of resources, meat production is the most resource intensive, using more land and water than any other type of food. It’s also the most environmentally degrading owing to the large amounts of waste produced in feeding operations as well as methane from cattle digestion.
The good news is that since consumers drive the demand for food, they can also be the primary agents of change. ReFED cites consumer education and standardized date labeling as the two most cost-effective solutions. Fortunately, a wealth of information on cutting food waste is already available. SaveTheFood.com and LoveFoodHateWaste.com offer ideas on meal planning, food storage, and how to repurpose leftovers. Food: Too Good to Waste is a toolkit available from the EPA that emphasizes prevention strategies to help individuals and families reduce food losses. Shoppers can ask their local supermarkets to offer more flexible packaging and bulk bins so they can buy just what they need. They can also buy imperfect produce and encourage the store’s produce manager to stock lower cost, “ugly” fruits and vegetables. Food sharing apps allow those with extra food to find willing recipients, whether they are hungry neighbors or hunger relief agencies.
Given the vastness of this issue, where can animal advocates have the biggest impact? To keep even more animals from suffering and dying just to be thrown away, the best thing to do is to reduce demand for meat, dairy and eggs. And since it’s consumers who are chucking that half-eaten burger or last weekend’s rotisserie chicken in the trash, they are the place to start. ReFED identifies consumer education as one of the top three solutions in terms of economic value. That means that an appeal to the pocketbook might be highly effective. And since meat is one of the most expensive food items that consumers buy, educating them on how to reduce meat waste will do the most for their household budgets.
Advocates might join an existing waste reduction program in their community, or they might need to start one. Another potentially high-impact option is to seek legislative changes to the confusing system of date labeling. Furthermore, while it won’t affect the demand for meat, getting involved in (or starting) a food recovery program can keep animal products from going to waste by feeding people in need. It’s perhaps a bit of a backdoor approach to saving animals, but who’s going to argue with efforts that teach people to waste less food?