On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency announced their plan to tackle food waste in America, a problem that has grown by 50 percent since the 1970s. Today, as much as 40 percent of food produced in America is thrown away, amounting to 1,400 calories per person per day, $400 per person per year, and notably, 31 million tons of food added to landfills each year.
The USDA’s and EPA’s solution is a program called the U.S. Food Waste Challenge, which invites food producers, retailers, consumers, nonprofits and government agencies to sign up and “list the activities they will undertake to help reduce, recover, or recycle food waste in the United States.” So far, General Mills, Unilever, and the Food Waste Reduction Alliance are among the program’s first participants.
As part of the program, the USDA is also addressing food waste in schools, updating nation-wide food loss estimates from retailers, pilot-testing a meat-composting program, and working to make it easier for companies to donate misbranded meat and poultry and imported produce that doesn’t meet the country’s strict quality standards instead of throwing it away. The agency will also be educating consumers about food waste and correct ways to store food — a lack of understanding that the Natural Resources Defense Council has cited as one of the major causes of food waste in America.
Throwing away food contributes directly to climate change — as EPA Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe noted in a press release about the program, decomposing food releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times as effective at trapping atmospheric heat than carbon. According to the EPA, 17 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from landfills. But a high rate of wasted food also means a high rate of the energy that goes into food production — the water, fuel and farmland needed to grow crops and produce meat — is also wasted. It’s been estimated that 2 percent of all U.S. energy goes into food that American consumers and retailers are wasting.
The problem of food waste isn’t limited to the U.S., and as food insecurity grows around the world, the task of finding ways of solving it becomes more urgent. Worldwide, it’s estimated estimated that one-third to a half of all food is wasted — despite estimates that 870 million people are undernourished. Global populations are projected to reach up to 10.5 billion by 2050, putting strain on the world’s food system. And the effects of climate change — extreme weather, droughts, floods and pest outbreaks — could put 20 percent more people worldwide at risk of hunger by 2050, according to the United Nations’ World Food Program.
Many countries have already seen the effects climate change can have on food supplies: last year’s record-breaking drought decimated winter and summer wheat crops in the U.S. and Russia, and U.S. soybeans and corn were hit just as hard. In 2012, worldwide food consumption surpassed production for the sixth time in 11 years, and low crop yields caused food prices to spike.