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Food Waste


The Natural Resources Defense Council has released a paper detailing the grotesque waste of food in the United States and suggesting common-sense plans to reduce this waste.

Food is simply too good to waste. Even the most sustainably farmed food does us no good if the food is never eaten. Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land. Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.

What’s particularly outrageous is that 50% of the seafood in the United States goes to waste. 50%!!!!! These are wild animals, the last wild animals we harvest commercially for food. Some of these species are in severe decline and are becoming endangered. Yet we treat this food so casually as to dump 1/2 of it in landfills. This is outrageous.

Of course, the national appetite for government-led environmental initiatives is now close to zero so I suppose nothing will get done.

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  • Halloween Jack

    I’m old enough to remember when wasting food was considered to be a shameful act.

  • Malaclypse

    How much of the waste is consumed by other animals? I’m guessing that between 1/3 to 1/2 of my berries are consumed by birds and bunnies, and I’d imagine grain has some pretty substantial insect issues.

    • I believe this is harvested food counted, not food on the vine/stalk.

  • R. Porrofatto

    According to the NRDC paper (which is very interesting BTW, great link), about two-thirds of the seafood loss occurs in the home, but no explanation for that is given. I can’t imagine what’s happening here — do people throw out cans of tuna, or what?

    I found this paragraph particularly noteworthy:

    Labor shortages are another reason that produce is sometimes left in the field. With changing immigration laws, this problem has become more commonplace. In 2011, for instance, the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association estimated labor shortages for harvest and packing would cost the state US$140 million in crop losses— about 25 percent of total production value for those crops.

    Maybe some states need to do a bigotry:benefit cost analysis.

    • Spuddie

      With seafood, I wonder how they are measuring waste. By mass?

      With many whole forms of seafood there tends to be a large masses of parts not usually considered for human consumption, ie dark meat portions of bony fish, organs, fins, tails and heads…

      Think of how much of your crustacean and mollusk mass is shell.

      Granted none of it is excusing food waste, I am just curious about the metrics here.

      • R. Porrofatto

        From the pdf:

        Note that loss numbers are based on mass and include loss in mass due to cooking but exclude inedible portions such as bones and peels.

        • Spuddie

          That’s what I get for not reading. :)

          Still when you are talking about tuna, there is a large amount of mass, although technically edible that doesn’t end up in the retail food chain. Dark meat tuna, the meat around the spine is usually used in cat food. sushi/sashimi can be incredibly wasteful in preparation.

          Of course portions at restaurants are far too big these days. I have a feeling this is one of the largest factors in food waste.

  • Tybalt

    Erik, I’m not sure that “initiatives” are needed as much as a simple program of public education.

    However, you’re going to make some big enemies in the food industry by discouraging food waste.

  • Matthew Stevens

    Unfortunately I think the fight against obesity makes the problem worse: Folks are discouraged from ‘cleaning their plates,’ and encouraged to throw food away; and there’s an emphasis on fruits & vegetables over meat & dairy, and the former (because they aren’t frozen) spoil more quickly.

  • McKingford

    This overlooks the two most obvious ways in which food is wasted:

    1. it is fed to animals – an incredibly inefficient use of grain.
    2. it is converted into ethanol.

    Leaving aside the kind of wastage cited in this study, most corn grown in the US is not even eaten by humans. Now *that* is wasteful.

  • “Natural” = _N_RDC

    • That was a typo, thanks for pointing it out.

      • Thx. I usually don’t point out typos, but I’m a fan of the NRDC. Sorry for interrupting the more relevant posts on this thread. :-)

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  • Haven’t read the whole report yet, but it seems to me we need to better distinguish waste during the harvesting, transportation, and production / packaging processes from waste by restaurants and other commercial food preparers from waste by consumers. I’m sure most of us can do better on the latter but I suspect the other two are where the real action is.

    We have a tendency to overemphasize individuals’ impact and underempahasize the role of business. And there are likely lots of ways that better paid labor could address this (i.e. good jobs making good food).

  • superdude

    Most salmon, shrimp, shellfish, and 100% of tilapia are farmed. I don’t know what percentage of “seafood” they account for. Not that salmon and shrimp farming aren’t problematic.

  • Heron

    People need to think before they buy, make a list, and stick to it. I can tell you that the amount of rotted fruit, vegetables, and spoiled milk/sour cream I ended up throwing out as a kid was vast, purely because my parents would constantly buy the same items every week, pushing previous purchases further and further to the back, never to be used. It drove me goddamn crazy. It would not surprise me to find that plenty of middle class and above families have similarly wasteful buying habits that inevitably lead to wasteful food use.

    Cooking when you don’t need to is another big problem, particularly when you have kids. If you cook, say, eight Tilapia filets on a Saturday for lunch, don’t then cook four steaks and some potatoes ect on Sunday for lunch. Humans prefer to eat freshly cooked food, rarely consider instinctual factors in their eating behavior, and these habits are more pronounced in kids. Keep eating the fish until the “left-overs” are gone, then cook something else. Otherwise, people will just keep eating the most freshly cooked stuff, and before you know it two weeks have passed and you’ve got 2 rotten fish filets in your fridge.

  • Njorl

    We would do better to subsidize people’s capacity to buy expensive food than to subsidize producer’s capacity to sell cheap food.

  • MikeJake

    Atrios suggested that some enterprising sorts should get to work on producing a line of higher quality frozen seafood products. Do we really need seafood counters at every supermarket displaying fresh fish?

  • Make it easier to sell wild deer.

    Free range, organic, not a single ounce of carbon released to produce their food, and the population is out of hand anyway.

    Imagine if every meat-eater in American replaces 20 pounds a year of beef with 20 pounds of wild venison.

    • The deer population would collapse.

      It’s true there are probably too many deer and you could expand the hunting season some without severely damaging the deer population, but wild game can’t be a substitute for farm animals. It would turn into a bluefin tuna scenario within a couple of years.

      • Stag Party Palin

        Erik, you should check out some of the environmental damage done by our out-of-control deer populations. I think you could equip every deer hunter with a Costco Valu-Pak of C4 and a Japanese fishing trawler/freezer and it would scarcely make a dent. [citation needed]. There’s over a million deer in Georgia – fifty years ago there were less than 100,000. Nearly a million are born in Minnesota annually. Etc.

        • I know they raise havoc, but you’d be surprised how fluctuating deer populations can be, either up or down. Harvesting them for the domestic market would eliminate them in just a few years. Similarly eliminating all hunting would lead to mass deer starvation in just a few years.

  • Paul

    It worth noting that food waste/loss in the third world do to poor transportation, storage etc is far worse.

    In any case – that’s why more people need chickens and/or a compost pile and small garden. Aside from chicken (don’t want to go down the British beef path) my chickens happily eat leftovers that would other wise go to waste and provide eggs and the odd stew chicken every season (“we keep you alive to serve this ship err farm yard, row, I mean, lay well and live”). With three kids they are in fact almost prozac with wings because they make it a lot more easy to have your kid say I want X food I’m hungry and than not even touch X…

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