So I set about to do a little research. And this is what I found. There is waste at both the pre-consumer and post-consumer levels. Pre-consumer waste might come from the farms where produce is found to be less than perfect and won't be purchased or from food processing plants where machines are designed for looking for aesthetic qualities rather than food utilization. There are things that can be done about that, but I want to spend more on the post-consumer waste, referring to when it comes to us.
First a couple of facts about agriculture: 50% percent of all land in the US and 80% of all freshwater consumed is used for the production of food. Meat consumption has increased dramatically in the last 100 years. The consumption per person in the US is 125 KG per year and is the highest worldwide. It is said that three hundred trout are needed to support one man for a year; the trout, in turn, must consume 90,000 frogs, that must consume 27 million grasshoppers that live off 1000 tons of grass. Currently, fifty percent of US grain production and 40% worldwide of grain production goes to feed animals because of the increased meat consumption. Usually as income increases, meat consumption increases. If all countries move toward more meat consumption, there will be challenges ahead in having enough grain to support them. The way we eat matters. And what we do with the food we have access to matters as well.
Here are some facts about post-consumer food waste:
- The average dinner plate has increased in size by 36% since 1960. That means that we take more food, consume more food, but also potentially waste more if we are not able to finish what we have taken.
- Of the food that becomes waste, 44% comes from residential homes, 33% from restaurants and food service institutions, grocery stores 11%, and the balance from the fields and processing side. There is waste along each point, but the good news here is that WE (you and I) can do something about this. A lot of the waste comes from buying things that we end up not using and it spoils. This is mostly produce but can also be in leftovers. This can be reduced but will take diligence and discipline to use food up on time or freeze it if possible.
- There is also great confusion over the dates that we find on food. Most people see the dates on food as expiration dates and view them as a way to gauge food safety. But that is not the case. Those dates typically refer to "best before" or "sell by," meaning that the date is telling the peak quality. There still may be a lot of time remaining for the food to be good after the date, but much food is thrown away because of this confusion. I was surprised to find out that these dates are not regulated at all (except for infant formula). That means there is no supervision to decide the "best by" date and unfortunately, it is in the best interest of food production companies for us to throw out food and buy more. We need to have more education about food dates.
- As consumers, we also need to challenge ourselves to not only buy the most perfect produce. When stores can only sell the most perfect fruit and vegetables, they are left with the imperfect produce that can't be sold and ends up going to waste. Some stores do donate to food kitchens or pantries, which is good, but we can also focus more on food utilization and less on aesthetics.
- Restaurants are another great source of waste, mostly coming from the leftovers of the food that customers don't finish. Think about how many restaurants are in your area, and how much food is left on plates on a daily basis. On average diners leave 17% of their meal uneaten and 55% of leftovers are not taken home. All of this food needs to be disposed of. My proposal is that restaurants begin to charge a "waste" tax. If you chose not to finish the food on your plate, you are charged a fee to cover the cost of the disposal of that waste. That might cause people to be more careful about ordering only what they can eat. Or it might cause people to be more faithful in taking home the leftovers, which still leaves the challenge of eating the leftovers once they are home. Restaurants also have a challenge in having such broad menus which means they have to have all of that food available for whoever orders it. This also means that if no-one does order it, it needs to be thrown out at some point. Did you know that McDonalds throws out their fries after seven minutes and hamburgers after twenty minutes? Something I appreciated in Africa was that in some restaurants you could ask what is available and they would give you three choices, and you choose from those three.
- There are some who say that "because I compost, I don't waste." Composting is important (although only 3% of food waste is currently being composted) but it is not more important that reducing food waste to begin with. If we think about what goes into getting a potato from the field to the fork, there is much to think about. The farmer has their inputs, including fertilizer, water, nutrients, equipment, and labor. The food production company has their costs. The retail store has their costs. By the time it comes to you, a lot has been put into that potato. To just put it in compost is a waste of those inputs and efforts. Composting is better than landfill but not better than consumption.
Feel free to join me in feeling faintly ill about this and see what you can do in your own home to reduce waste!