What If Government Took Food Waste Seriously? Well, the EU Does
Last fall, employees at Jim Durst’s farm in Yolo County, California, harvested about 30 bins full of oddly-shaped organic butternut squash. These gourds would never see the inside of a grocery store—they had curvy necks or bulbous heads, making them unfit for big retail buyers. On some farms, this perfectly good organic squash might have been left in the field to rot. But Durst, and some other farmers like him, take the trouble to pick it so it can be donated to a local food bank.
“It costs us money to go through and pick them up, but it is minimal compared to the amount of good that it provides," Durst told AgAlert. Instead of being wasted, that squash helped feed families in need.
California is making it easier for farmers like Durst to donate excess produce with a 10 percent tax credit for food bank donations, a move that helps bridge the ironic gap between food banks that struggle to meet demand and the nearby fields filled with perfectly good crops left to rot for lack of buyers. This is just one simple way in which government action—whether through policy changes, research initiatives, or public campaigns—can make a dent in food waste, and ensure that at least some of the 40 percent of edible food that is wasted in this country gets to people who need it. The EU has tackled food waste at the highest levels of government, and it’s time we did so in this country as well.
Encouraging donations is one way to keep good food from being discarded. Arizona and Colorado, like California, offer a tax credit for farmers who make food bank donations. A national tax incentive could also boost donations, and allow for interstate donations, too. After all, an Arizona farm might have a surplus when California’s growing season is slow, and that food could be channeled to where it’s needed most.
The federal government can step up in a big way to end confusion over expiration dates. Those “use by,” “sell by,” and “best by” dates typically have nothing to do with food safety. They’re simply a manufacturer’s “suggestion” for peak freshness, and are not regulated by any public health standard. Who knew? One survey suggests that 60 percent of Americans throw away food because of confusion over the date on the label. In the U.K., new government guidelines for expiration dates are expected to reduce this waste by 20 percent. Our government should take similar action—but in the meantime, remember that most food, when it’s stored properly, can be consumed beyond the date on the label. Your nose can tell you pretty clearly when milk goes bad. Also, check these USDA tips on safe food storage and consumption.
Innovation is another key to reducing food waste, and government action can help spark it. Many states have broadly defined block grant programs to “encourage competitiveness” for certain crops, including fruits, vegetables and nuts. Food waste prevention could be a focus area for these grants, encouraging innovators to test out new ways to reduce waste, and giving them a way to pilot their ideas.
In Massachusetts, the state legislature is about to enact a ban on commercial food waste in landfills, a move that is expected to save waning landfill space, reduce methane pollution, and encourage innovative ways to turn food waste into a valuable resource, such as compost or biogas energy. About half the state’s supermarkets, as well as other large institutions, already compost much of their food waste, finding it cost-effective because of big annual savings on disposal costs. The new regulations are expected to divert an additional 350,000 tons of food waste from landfills every year. This savings is critical, as the state’s landfill capacity is expected to drop from 2.1 million tons to 600,000 tons by 2020.
The U.K. has moved food waste front and center in the public eye, thanks to its Love Food Hate Waste campaign, which has helped reduce avoidable household food waste 18 percent. A recent survey found that food waste ranked even higher than food safety as one of the top three food concerns for the British public. Imagine what a celebrity spokesperson could do to focus the American public on this issue. (Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama are taken—who might you pick?)
Finally, we need more information on how and where and why food gets wasted in this country. The existing data show that we have a problem, and it’s a big one. Further research can help us pinpoint how and where we can make the biggest reductions, quickly and cost-effectively. The European Commission completed a comprehensive food waste study in 2010, which helped set the framework for the EU’s goal of cutting food waste in half by 2020. Now the EU has launched FUSIONS, a four-year project to network and collect data on food waste across the EU. Comprehensive data on food waste in America can help us set our own national goals for food waste reduction and measure our progress.
Of course as individuals, we can all do our part to reduce food waste. But systemic change needs national leadership. If we want a more sustainable food system, we need to make reducing food waste a national issue. We spend $90 billion each year to make food that never gets eaten. We use 25 percent of our freshwater and four percent of our oil to produce, package, and transport food that feeds no one. These are our national resources being wasted, while 50 million Americans lack a secure supply of food. This is an issue that deserves our attention, in our homes, in our businesses, and from our local, state, and national leaders.