There has been an uprising in the
conversation around food waste and its mitigation. Even Agriculture Secretary
Tom Vilsack has announced goals to reduce food waste across the country by 50
percent by 2030. This means that food waste is moving to the forefront of
people’s minds, raising the issue to a call for action. As of yet, the ideas
being proposed are all band-aids to an issue. They are quick fixes, not
systemic solutions. Some individuals are applying creative business ideas such
as anaerobic digesters to convert waste into fuel or energy. Cities are
implementing more composting requirements and sites to process the food waste.
There is also an increase in diverting food to the emergency food system
calling this a social imperative with so many people living in food insecure
households. Studies are even cropping up to identify where in the food chain
waste is happening so that companies can identify food loss in their own supply
There is a compounding problem to
the issue of food waste which puts the responsibility of it on the consumer. In
traditionally developed countries, most of the food waste occurs at the
consumer level, either due to consumers purchasing too much, or throwing away
perfectly good food because of misleading expiration labels. Further research
has shown that food waste occurs because of stringent aesthetic standards
required by supermarkets, which stigmatizes misshapen but perfectly good fruits
and vegetables. To this last point, there has been an uprising in ugly
vegetable promotion such as the Ugly Fruit and Veg Campaign.
Maybe you’re asking yourself what’s
the problem. There are many initiatives taking shape to divert food waste.
Additionally, there are campaigns to educate consumers around misshapen produce
and expiration labels. With all of these efforts we should see a reduction in
food waste. Right?
While this may be true. It is not
actually solving the issue of why we have food waste in the first place. Not
only that, some of the fixes even divert the fault and responsibility. All
these quick fixes only solve the problem temporarily. However, food waste will
still continue and some of these quick fix ideas create an actual need for food
waste such as anaerobic digesters and the emergency food system. In fact, the
emergency food system has already become pretty dependent on food waste
There are consequences then to
getting at the root cause of food waste. In fact, root causes can typically
look impossible to achieve. Food waste exists for a myriad of reasons. Over
production on the fields which is itself caused by the federal support system
(or lack thereof) we have in place for growers. The need to find places to put
all this raw crop leads to more and more products at the grocery store. Another
point for food waste are grocery stores themselves. They only want the
prettiest produce, leaving anything that doesn’t look perfect to be diverted
somewhere else. This somewhere else can be produce simply left in the field to
be tilled under, emergency food system tax credit donations, or left for waste
in one way or another. Grocery stores also want to have beautifully fully
stocked shelves in the produce section at all times. This leads to product
going bad on the shelf and thrown out. Food waste also exists in a myriad of
other places within supply chains, as well as at restaurants. However, the
reason all these latter instances are able to exist is because of the level of
This is not to put the grower at
fault. It is not their direct fault and this is where root cases can appear
complicated. To over simplify, growers over produce for a few reasons: 1) to make
enough money to stay afloat because there are no price floors and crop prices
are constantly driven down to prices that don’t pay living wages; and 2) they
are encouraged to grow more by the price of inputs and outputs – it becomes an
economy of scale scenario.
have too much inventory. From a supply management view, this is ridiculous. For
example, corporation Y makes product X. This product is not only always
overproduced, but corporation Y is even asked to produce as much as possible. Eventually
the corporation realizes that they have so much inventory that they cannot sell
it all. They at first donate product for a tax credit, but this can only be
temporary as they are losing too much money and need to actually sell their
product. For even with the tax credit it would not equal what they would have
made if they had been able to sell it. So, naturally, they reduce their
inventory of product X. They apply supply management. It only makes sense that
we would apply the same thinking to our food system as well.
But we don’t
because it seems easier to apply quick fixes than to look at the system itself.
Even though that is what would really fix the issue of overproduction. At this
time, one might be thinking to themselves: but
if we already have hungry people won’t it get worse if we start producing less?
My answer is simply no.
of food is not the problem. There are rural areas that have had grocery stores
close leaving the community at a loss of a store for 10 plus miles. This may
not sound like a lot, but if you don’t have a car, it means eating and not
eating. People aren’t hungry because there isn’t enough to eat. People are
hungry because they either aren’t paid enough or can’t find a job in the
community and don’t have enough money to move anywhere. Connecting food waste
to food insecurity covers up the root cause.
If we want
to reduce food waste we need to be looking at our industrial farming system and
the farm bill. If we want food insecure households to become secure we need to
look at rural infrastructure and living wages.