In the U.S., about 40 percent of all food goes uneaten. That’s enough food to fill a semi-truck every 20 seconds, and almost all of it ends up in landfills.
In fact, food makes up the largest share of landfill waste today, and it generates extremely potent methane emissions as it decays. (Just one-third of all that wasted food each year could feed all food-insecure Americans.)
Given the complex nature of food systems and variety of food products in the U.S., a suite of solutions will be required to address this waste issue. These include improving the efficiency of operations and supply chains and finding productive uses for edible byproducts.
Lack of Visibility and Measurement
Since most businesses and households do not track or measure their food waste, it is essentially invisible—and so are its costs. Businesses that don’t track food waste in detail cannot systematically reduce it nor evaluate the cost-benefit of solutions. Local governments too lack the level of information that could help design programs, incentivize leaders and identify laggards, or evaluate progress. Individuals, too, are ignorant of their waste, with 75 percent of Americans reporting they waste less than the average American.
Both food and waste disposal cost relatively little, especially when compared with labor, real estate, or the potential loss of customers. Food businesses may prioritize hiring fewer workers or providing customers more options, even if it means more food is thrown out. Additionally, many food businesses drive profits through high volume sales, leading to large portions and promotions that encourage overbuying—which in turn leads to waste at the consumer level. Finally, farmers will choose to leave entire fields or types of products unharvested if market prices do not warrant the costs of harvesting and transporting the product.
Food Safety Requirements
Food safety is of paramount importance to both the food industry and regulators. A single lapse can have a dangerous and long-lasting impact. Companies and regulations therefore give a wide berth to anything that would incur increased food safety risk, leading to huge amounts of food being discarded as a precautionary measure. Furthermore, rules and enforcement can vary from one jurisdiction to another, causing confusion and lowest-common-denominator policies for businesses operating facilities across multiple regions. Policies also vary from one jurisdiction to another on, for instance, whether food from a salad bar can be donated or how it must be cooled. Despite a federal law providing liability protections, some businesses remain reluctant to donate food for fear of a food safety issue.
Technology Innovation Examples
In developed economies, as much as 20 percent of agricultural production can be lost to agronomic pests and pathogens. In large part, this is a result of herbicide resistance and emerging pests pushed into new geographies by climate change. Technologies that include early detection of threats and precision application of responses are needed.
Approximately one-third of the food we produce today is lost or wasted. For consumers and retail, action is needed to address this waste. Because food is lost to different causes across the supply chain, a variety of technologies are emerging to help. These include everything from hyperspectral imaging that evaluates produce quality and shelf-life to machine learning-assisted forecasting for grocery stores and temperature sensors in trucks.