The food waste landscape is complex, and there’s one clear call to action for the fresh produce industry worldwide: Reduce produce waste. Fresh produce is one of the top contributors to food waste—from the fields to stores and restaurants to our homes. Our industry has a strong role to play, often integrated with others. And there is no end point—this is a journey, not a destination.
In general, produce waste happens closer to points of production in less-developed countries and closer to points of consumption in developed countries. This points to the need for comprehensive solutions that include consumers. Our call is to recognize waste points, wherever they occur, and do what we can to reduce waste.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one-third of global food production is either wasted or goes uneaten. Increasing the efficiency of the food system is a triple-bottom-line solution that requires collaborative efforts by businesses, governments and consumers. Notably, per-capita food waste by consumers in North America and Europe was 209-254 pounds per year compared to 13-24 pounds per year in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia.
Waste is certainly an issue of landfills/methane, greenhouse gas emissions, wasted inputs used in producing the food, and contribution to climate change. It’s also a
human health imperative.
According to a study commissioned by the FAO in 2012, hunger is the world’s top health risk, about one-third of food for human consumption is lost or wasted globally each year. Food waste is a missed opportunity to feed the growing world population.
A recent report from the Natural Resources Defense Council notes:
- Getting food from farm to fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States.
- Forty percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. Americans throw out $165 billion each year.
- The uneaten food rots in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste accounting for a large portion of U.S. methane emissions.
- Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would feed more than 25 million Americans a year when one in six lack a secure supply of food.
In Canada, consumers spend C$40.80 each week on produce, 34 percent of the weekly grocery budget. Ten percent of purchased fruit and vegetables get tossed in the trash each week by Canadians.
USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that 31 percent (133 billion pounds) of food available for consumption at the retail and consumer levels in the United States in 2010 went uneaten. Two-thirds of this loss occurred in homes, restaurants, and other away-from-home eating places, and one-third occurred in grocery stores and other food retailers, including edible food discarded by retailers due to color or appearance and plate waste thrown away by consumers. For example, 28 percent of U.S. loss in the vegetables group in 2010 occurred at grocery stores and other retailers and 72 percent occurred in homes and away-from-home eating places. To get a feel for produce waste in the United States, simply look at combined retail and consumer waste in the United States in the chart below, and add the fruit and vegetable lines together.
The Food Recovery Hierarchy ranks preferred uses for food waste.
The produce industry faces a variety of challenges when it comes to waste:
- Perishability: product and markets
- Regulations: Size, shape, color
- Economic impact
Our industry also has a strong role in developing chain-wide solutions, including consumers. Though we can’t eliminate food waste, we must aim to get as low as possible, from comprehensive programs, to tech innovations, to consumer education.
The U.S. Food Waste Challenge from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched on June 4, 2013, calls on the food chain to reduce, recover, and recycle food.
- Reduce food waste by improving product development, storage, shopping/ordering, marketing, labeling and cooking methods.
- Recover food waste by connecting potential food donors to hunger relief organizations like food banks and pantries.
- Recycle food waste to feed animals or to create compost, bioenergy and natural fertilizers.
EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge offers participants access to data management software and technical assistance to help them quantify and improve their sustainable food management practices. EPA provides on-going technical assistance to encourage continuous improvement.
In Europe, the Every Crumb Counts program (covering all food, not just produce), aims to cut edible food waste in half throughout the food chain by 2020, recognizing this takes a supply chain approach.
The United Kingdom launched its Love Food Hate Waste consumer education campaign to share practical ways to reduce food waste, with food waste dropping 15 percent five years later.
Japan has a multifaceted policy that encourages food manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants to recycle more food waste for feed, fertilizer and energy.
The Food Waste Reduction Alliance is a U.S. food-industry coalition with a wide variety of resources.
Producers and retailers around the world are embracing “ugly” produce that may not have the right shape or color but is still delicious, nutritious and salable.
Ultimately, any industry is accountable for how it operates, and the produce industry is no different. We are accountable to customers, to buyers, to communities, to the media. Companies increasingly are called on to be transparent about their food waste and other sustainability efforts—from audits, to checklists, to corporate social responsibility reports.
At PMA, we’re at work on several fronts. We’re educating members and the industry about this issue, working with other like-minded organizations to provide information and resources companies can use, and donating the produce our industry showcases at our events. Each October, we donate more than 200 tons of delicious fresh produce to the food banks near Fresh Summit.