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United States Faces Food Loss

2/2/2016
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The issue of food loss, food waste, and the environmental cost of food production edged closer to the forefront of the US public consciousness in 2015. US consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with and aware of the environmental cost of food production, and have begun taking steps to combat waste and lessen the environmental footprint of their food.

The USDA Economic Research Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate that, in 2010, 31%, or 60 million tonnnes, of food available in retail (not including farm to retail) outlets went unconsumed. The USDA estimates that two thirds of the loss occurred in the home, while one third occurred at retail level. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates a similar rate of food loss globally. In September 2015, in a joint statement, the USDA and EPA announced the US’s first-ever national food waste reduction goal, calling for a 50% reduction by 2030.

Ugly is beautiful

With the issue of climate change at the forefront of politics, many US citizens are taking active steps to combat food waste. Although “freeganism,” the act of eating food that has been discarded by shops, has been common practice among the anti-consumerist subculture in the US since the mid-1990s, the awareness of food loss has only recently manifested itself in the mainstream. The “ugly food movement,” which has already taken foot in Europe and Australia, is one of the ways that some US consumers are taking a stance. According to the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), an international non-profit environmental organisation, 20% of fresh fruit and vegetables never makes it to retail outlets and is discarded primarily due to the products not being superficially acceptable. Western consumers have developed a strict aesthetic for their fruit and vegetables, one which has been crafted by wide-scale farming and leaves little room for variation. The “ugly food movement” aims to change society’s standards of fruit and vegetable shape and colour, urging consumers (and in turn, retail and foodservice providers) to be more accepting of produce that varies from previous standards. The “ugly food movement” has been heralded by many prominent restaurateurs, Food and Wine Magazine, and retailers around the US.

Respect the vegetable

Some 10 years ago, US food writer Michael Pollan said, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. Many US citizens are now taking that advice to heart. In some circles, meat is being used as a condiment or as a side dish rather than as a main course, with vegetables taking over the centre of the plate. The nose-to-tail trend that swept the nation years ago has now made its way from the butcher shop to the produce aisle. While the nose-to-tail trend encouraged consumers to consume the entire animal out of concern for waste, some consumers are now applying that approach to vegetables. The root-to-stem movement is exemplified by the appearance of a salad made of trimmings at a trendy San Francisco restaurant; broccoli stems, cabbage cores, etc, garnished with anchovy dressing and parmesan cheese. This dish does not eschew animal products entirely, though it does relegate them to the status of garnish, while at the same time wasting as little vegetable as possible.

Future impact

Reducing food waste is central to the aim of reducing hunger and slowing climate change. If the retail channel can make ugly food commercially sellable, and in turn reduce food loss, the environmental cost of food production will be mitigated to some degree. The USDA and EPA have partnered with the private sector (foodservice companies, institutions, restaurants, and grocery stores), encouraging it to set its own aggressive goals for reducing food loss and waste in the months ahead. Organisations such as the Consumer Goods Forum, which recently approved a new resolution to halve food waste within the operations of its 400 retailer and manufacturer members by 2025, are also supporting the initiative.

In January 2016, the EPA launched what it calls the Food Steward’s Pledge, enlisting religious communities of all faiths to join the initiative to reduce food waste. “We can make leaps and bounds in this process if we tackle this problem more systemically and bring a broader number of stakeholders to the table”, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said. With the Food Steward’s Pledge, “we are tapping into incredibly motivated and dedicated people”. The EPA suggests that community leaders educate their constituents on the state of food loss in the US and hold seminars on habits which would reduce waste, including topics such as effective menu planning, shopping to avoid excess food, and composting. The initiative also aims to motivate faith-based communities to work with local grocers, encouraging them to donate their leftover food. The agency provides comprehensive suggestions for groups that sign its Food Steward’s Pledge.

The aforementioned joint EPA and USDA press release stated a goal to reduce food waste by 50% by 2030, urging US citizens to “feed people, not landfills”, marked the first formal national food waste reduction goal. The coming years will show how aggressively the agencies pursue the initiative and if a reduction in waste can actually be achieved.

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