Reducing food waste can shrink agriculture’s environmental footprint while helping to feed the hungry and conserve resources. But since food waste occurs across all sectors of the food chain, reducing it will require coordination and funding. 

“By wasting food, we are not only wasting food as a resource, but we are also wasting everything that it took to grow and transport the food,” said Nina Sevilla, program advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Food Waste and Food Systems, People and Communities Program. 

“Reducing food waste is a great way to address the climate, the environment, and human needs. And the farm bill is a great opportunity to address the issue at the federal level.”

But getting Congress to do much about the issue in the upcoming farm bill will be difficult, given the tough budget environment on Capitol Hill.

Following a 2015 goal announced by USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cut food waste in the United States by 50% by 2030, the 2018 farm bill included $25 million for efforts to reduce food waste and loss. Included were measures to clarify liability protections for food donors, financing for food recovery from farms, encouraging food waste recycling through community compost funding, and better coordination of food waste reduction efforts across the federal government.

Andrew Harig — vice president of tax, trade, sustainability and policy development for FMI — The Food Industry Association, which represents Kroger, Walmart and other major food retailers — said reducing food waste through donations, composting, recycling, and upcycling would have a big impact on the environment by keeping this uneaten food out of landfills, and it would go a long way toward meeting the country’s environmental goals.

“One of the best places to start in the country and around the globe is to be sure we are not wasting what we have,” Harig said. “It’s a core sustainability issue.”

Andrew-Harig-FMI-300.jpgAndrew Harig, FMI-The Food Industry Association

FMI is part of the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance, a coalition of major food and agricultural organizations that has put out a list of farm bill recommendations. Among the group's priorities are six to reduce food waste and loss, including a recommendation to make permanent the position of USDA’s food waste liaison, which was created in the 2018 farm bill.

“We would ultimately like to see that expanded,” Harig said. “We would love to see a dedicated budget and dedicated office, but I think expanding it is a tough one given the budget issues.”

But the Zero Food Waste Coalition, which consists of NRDC, the World Wildlife Fund, Harvard Law Schools’ Food Law and Policy Clinic, and ReFed, an organization working to reduce food waste, is proposing to create an office to enhance the USDA liaison’s work. 

The coalition wants Congress to authorize up to $100 million in annual appropriations and provide $20 million a year in mandatory funding to improve federal coordination of grant administration and cooperative agreements that support food waste reduction, surplus food recovery efforts, and infrastructure.

According to ReFed, 33% of all food produced in the United States either ends up in landfills, incinerators or is washed down the drain; all told, 38% of the food grown or raised in the country is considered food waste or loss.

That uneaten food, which is neither recycled nor donated, is the equivalent of 149 billion meals valued at $444 billion, or roughly 2% of the U.S. gross domestic product. More than half the wasted food ends up in landfills or is left unharvested, and U.S. food waste and loss have the same climate footprint as the entire U.S. aviation industry, including passenger, commercial, and military. 

The U.S. uses 22% of its fresh water and 16% of its cropland to grow food that goes uneaten, and that wasted food accounts for 372 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Zero Food Waste Coalition. The country also spends $444 billion annually to grow, process, store, distribute, and dispose of this uneaten food, while about one in 10 American households are food insecure, according to ReFed. 

According to ReFed, an estimated 48% of all food waste and loss occurs at the consumer level, partly due to confusion over date labels found on food packages. 

In May, lawmakers introduced a bill to try and address that particular problem, the Food Date Labeling Act. Under the bill, food manufacturers who use date labels would have to choose between a “best if used by” date, which addresses food quality, or a “use by” date, which alerts consumers as to whether there could be food safety issues.

Alex Nichols-Vinueza, program manager of food loss and waste at the World Wildlife Fund, said consumer confusion over date labels accounts for 10% of all food waste.

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According to FMI’s Harig, about 10 or 12 different types of date labels are in broad use today across the country. FMI supports standardized date labels but only if they are voluntary.

“The Food Date Labeling Act is modeled after a voluntary program that FMI launched with [the Consumer Brands Association],” Harig said. “It is a thoughtfully put-together bill, but there is no critical mass to support mandatory labeling. We have concerns about why we need a mandatory program and how it will be enforced.”

Harig said mandatory date labeling could be a problem for foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration rather than USDA, which is largely limited to meat and poultry. If the wrong language were to be used on the label, an FDA-regulated food could be considered a branding violation under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Penalties for violations can range from civil to criminal and include fines, injunctions, and other actions.

Alex-Nichols-Vinueza-WWF.jpegAlex Nichols-Vinueza, World Wildlife Fund

Another major focus for reducing food waste is finding ways to keep waste out of landfills through donations, recycling, and composting is critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Zero Food Waste Coalition recommends allocating $50 million to increase the country’s infrastructure to reduce the food waste going into landfills and increase food recovery.

“Food is the largest single material that ends up in landfills. Composting recycles the nutrients back into the food system,” Sevilla said. “The technology exists, and it has been proven. There just is not enough infrastructure.”

A proposal for the farm bill, the Cultivating Organic Matter through the Promotion of Sustainable Techniques (COMPOST) Act, would make composting a conservation practice and activity for purposes of USDA conservation programs. The bill would require USDA to establish a competitive program to award grants and loan guarantees for projects that expand access to food waste composting.

The Zero Food Waste Coalition also recommends allocating $50 million for research in food waste prevention, upcycling — the process of creating a new consumer product from wasted food — and recycling — efforts like feeding scraps to livestock.

“We think there is an opportunity to build out the research and provide grants to farmers so food that is still edible but doesn’t have a market can be upcycled and sold,” said WWF’s Nichols-Vinueza. “Most growers are not equipped to turn this surplus into a consumer-packaged product on-farm to make a decent return. We need to give them the assistance to build the on-farm infrastructure.”

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