2013-06-26 10.14.54In the wake of World Food Day, it is again appropriate to consider how much food is wasted annually — both domestically and globally — as well as the benefits that will accrue from reducing that waste.  The statistics on food losses and wastage are truly staggering, with numerous estimates pegging waste at 30% to 50% of food produced.  That volume is indeed enormous: a recent report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, for example, noted that of the 4.4 billion tons of food produced across the globe annually, 1.3 to 2.2 billion tons are not consumed by humans.

In the US, the trend in food waste has been getting worse over the last several decades while the nation has become more affluent.  A 1977 government study estimated that 20% of food produced for human consumption went to waste.  Twenty years later, a USDA study (Kantor, et al.) estimated food losses at 27% of food produced for human consumption, while a more recent study (Buzby, et al.) noted that 31% of the food at the retail and consumer levels was not eaten.

Viewed in conjunction with the current state of hunger in the US (with roughly one in six Americans experiencing food insecurity per Feeding America) and rising obesity levels due to poor nutrition, there are clear social and moral arguments to be made for reducing food waste and redirecting those resources to individuals in need.

There is a strong environmental case to be made as well.  Wasted food entails a waste of all of the physical and human resources that went into producing and distributing it — resources that could have been better-used elsewhere.  Further, decomposing food in landfills is a prime source of methane gas emissions, and it contributes to groundwater pollution.  This is the focus of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which seeks to reduce the amount of food waste going to landfills through the Food Recovery Challenge — part of its broader Sustainable Materials Management Program.  The EPA recently engaged ResponsEcology to assess the environmental benefits and efficiency of food recovery operations in the northeastern US, and some of the results can be found here.

Some key takeaways for CSR and sustainability managers from this work include:

  • There is tremendous need for healthy food among the nation’s food banks
  • Food recovery operations can be highly efficient, with little food loss in redistribution
  • Creative partnerships for food recovery are emerging
  • Legislative changes will require organizations to find other options for excess food in lieu of landfill
  • Employees are highly energized when their organization engages in food recovery
  • Supporting food recovery efforts improves organizational standing in the community
  • Environmental benefits from food recovery programs are considerable
  • Financial savings can be achieved from reduced disposal costs and tax deductions

Despite all of these benefits, the number of organizations participating in the Food Recovery Challenge is fairly small to date (less than 1,000).  It is still too easy, and often too cheap, to dispose of excess food in landfills — and most business operations are geared to do just that.  Mindset change is needed among operating managers to realize the value in excess food and to seek out the triple bottom line benefits that can result from participation in food recovery programs.  The key word is opportunity.  CSR and sustainability leaders can lead the change to embrace that opportunity, noting the potential to achieve long-term competitive advantage in the marketplace.  Evaluating alternative uses for excess food, and entering into discussions for partnerships with local food recovery agencies, is a great place to start.

Such partnerships result in an increasingly engaged workforce, and a hidden side benefit exists: employees seeking to minimize food waste will apply that mindset to other business segments as well.  As the many benefits of food recovery programs become more clear, expect participation in the Food Recovery Challenge to grow.