Last month’s USDA report by Buzby, Wells and Hyman (The Estimated Amount, Value, and Calories of Postharvest Food Losses at the Retail and Consumer Levels in the United States) admirably clarified the disturbing, entrenched trend of food loss in the U.S. The report pointed out that 31% of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels — a whopping 133 billion lbs. of the 430 lb. available food supply in the U.S. in 2010 — was not consumed.
While wrapping our heads around the enormity and consequences of these data; it is also worth considering the results in conjunction with prior studies.
A 1977 report by the GAO estimated that 20% of the food produced for consumption in the U.S. — an estimated value of $31 billion at that time — was not consumed. Two decades later, a study by Kantor estimated that 27% (96 billion lbs.) of edible food for consumption in 1995 was not eaten. And while Buzby’s recent study indicates a continued increase in food loss, the 31% figure is understated as it does not include losses at farm or at the farm to retail level. Synopsis? Well more than a third of the food produced in the U.S. is lost rather than consumed.
The key takeaway? We’re not getting better in terms of food loss; we’re getting worse. And yet food insecurity and obesity tied to inadequate nutrition are on the rise.
The recent USDA report referenced the 1977 GAO report’s discussion of whether some portion of food loss was “economically justifiable” due to factors impeding “the implementation of loss-reducing techniques” — such as the “slowness” of technology transfer. Given the disturbing trend in food loss, it’s worth reflecting on these points from nearly 40 years ago and linking them to current realities. First, technology transfer is no longer an inhibitor — it’s a driver of change — and on that basis alone we are now much better equipped to reduce food loss. Second, given the challenge of alleviating food insecurity among 50 million Americans and feeding 9 billion people across the globe by 2050, we have a tremendous moral responsibility to reduce food loss. Third, we have a pressing environmental need to reduce food loss — both in terms of the pollution impact of landfilled food waste as well as the wasted resources that went into producing it. Last, and working against the above, is the problem of our culture of abundance. The majority of individuals in the U.S. have become accustomed to plentiful food supplies — which exacerbates food losses and waste.
Buzby’s excellent report notes that there is a “practical limit” to how much food loss the U.S. can reduce due to myriad factors — but we’re way too far away from the so-called practical limit to give it much focus at this point in time. Our focus should instead be on sharply reducing current food losses, and to do that we need to change consumer attitudes — which involves moving away from behaviors driven by a culture of abundance to sustainability-driven behaviors which value food, people, and planet.