Food waste is a huge problem — each year, around 40 percent of food in the United States ends up as waste, contributing to food insecurity and climate change and costing the country billions of dollars. If the greenhouse gas emissions created when food waste decomposes were a country, it would rank only behind the United States and China in terms of contribution to global emissions.
Over the past few years, advocates — aided by successful pilot programs at some retail stores — have waged campaigns aimed at educating consumers about the woes of food waste. Now, the United States government is stepping up its contribution to the fight.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency announced the first official national goal for decreasing food waste across the country. Launched in partnership with state and local governments, private sector companies, and charitable organizations, the goal aims at reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.
“The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on earth, but too much of this food goes to waste,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said during the announcement. “An average family of four leaves more than two million calories, worth nearly $1,500, uneaten each year. Our new reduction goal demonstrates America’s leadership on a global level in in getting wholesome food to people who need it, protecting our natural resources, cutting environmental pollution and promoting innovative approaches for reducing food loss and waste.”
The announcement, which comes a week before the United Nations will meet to address global sustainable development goals, was met with praise by both environmental groups and industry. Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that since the food retail industry operates on “razor-thin” margins, reducing food waste makes good economic sense.
Dana Gunders, project scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Food and Agriculture program, told ThinkProgress that the announcement marked “a historic day for anyone who eats and wants to do so into the future.”
“We just can’t afford to continue wasting food, and I’m thrilled to see the administration is recognizing that,” Gunders said.
Food waste has been growing in the United States since the Second World War, nearly tripling from 12.2 million tons in the 1960s to 35 million tons in 2012. Over the same period of time, the number of food insecure Americans — those who have a problem enjoying consistent access to food — has grown from one in 20 in 1968 to one in six in 2014.
When food is thrown away without being consumed, however, it does more than contribute to food insecurity — it also helps to worsen climate change. Food that is thrown away ends up in landfills where decomposes, releasing methane — a potent greenhouse gas 86 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Globally, the total emissions released from food waste in 2007 was more than twice the amount of greenhouse gases released by all the road transportation in the United States in 2010. Food that is wasted also means that all the resources that go into making food — fossil fuels for farm equipment and transport, water for irrigation, land for farming — are wasted as well.
“Let’s feed people, not landfills,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said of the announcement. “By reducing wasted food in landfills, we cut harmful methane emissions that fuel climate change, conserve our natural resources, and protect our planet for future generations. Today’s announcement presents a major environmental, social and public health opportunity for the U.S., and we’re proud to be part of a national effort to reduce the food that goes into landfills.”
This isn’t the first time that the government has waded into the issue of food waste — in 2013, the USDA and EPA launched a program called the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, which brought together food producers, retailers, consumers, nonprofits, and government agencies for the shared purpose of reducing food waste. That program, however, did not set any official targets for reduction, instead focusing on reduction through increased awareness of the issue. Beyond setting a specific reduction target, it’s unclear how yesterday’s announcement goes beyond the U.S. Food Waste Challenge. As of publication, the USDA had yet to respond to a ThinkProgress request for clarification.
The reductions are voluntary, but Secretary Vilsack told NPR that there are many ways that even voluntary measures could help reduce food waste, such as programs that educate consumers about how to shop and cook in ways that reduce waste. According to NRDC, about 25 percent of the food that Americans buy is thrown away.
Still, some worry that the new targets put too much pressure on the consumer, without tackling food waste that occurs at the farm and retail level.
“I think [the reduction goals] are a good step to show federal leadership by way of a goal,” Jordan Figueiredo, food waste activist, told ThinkProgress. “However, they are very consumer-focused and seem to have forgotten that more than half of all wasted food comes before the store and home.”
Figueiredo is the figure behind @UglyFruitAndVeg, a social media campaign aimed at bringing attention to food waste caused by industry standards that encourage retailers to prioritize aesthetics over nutrition and safety. Earlier this summer, Figueiredo teamed up with nutritionist Stefanie Sacks to launch a petition aimed at encouraging Walmart and Whole Foods to sell “ugly” produce at a reduced cost, similar to programs piloted in France and the U.K.
Gunders cautioned, however, that there isn’t a silver bullet for tackling the issue of food waste.
“There’s not one action the government could take that is going to achieve these reductions. It’s going to need to be a set of different programs and policies and funding priorities, and it’s also going to need to be a partnership with the food industry, local governments, and Americans overall,” she said. As far as tangible steps the government could take to reduce food waste, Gunders suggests “low hanging fruit” like better food waste data or standardized expiration dates.
Gunders agrees with Figueiredo that the preliminary announcement lacked hard details on exactly how the USDA and EPA plan to cut Americans’ food waste in half in just 15 years, but she said that it signals a step in the right direction. When Gunders released NRDC’s initial report on food waste in 2012, she told ThinkProgress, hardly anyone was talking about the issue.
“Now it’s 2015, and we have our government setting pretty aggressive goals on the subject,” Gunders said. “Even if they don’t have all the nuts and bolts worked out, it’s a clear indication that we’ve come a long way.”