Surplus v. Sustainability: America’s Obsession With Food
by Scout Gabrielle Miller
“Waste Not, Want Not” is a familiar old adage, but looking at it through the technicolor lens of 2018 makes the phrase feel antiquated and empty. What does it mean? The dictionary will tell you that the idiom’s intended warning is that “wise use of one’s resources will keep one from poverty.” In modern day America, where there is a surplus of almost everything, it may not feel very applicable.
The phrase might instead bring to mind grainy photographs of Depression-era folks in line at the soup kitchen or working in a garden. Maybe it conjures images of WWI and WWII posters cautioning about wastefulness or educating about rationing. In any case, it does not bring to mind the $165 million worth of food wasted annually in the United States; and it certainly does not bring to mind the one in seven American citizens who face hunger each day (Move For Hunger). The hard truth is that the United States is bad at food management: most of us contribute to the horrifying $165 mil. wasted, while another large portion of the country is left seriously wanting. Over the past few years the people of the United States have fought back against the unsettling tide of food waste issues with awareness campaigns like the “green” movement, the “slow food” movement, and the “shop local” movement. Of course, these movements have helped to change the consumer mindset in a positive way, but changing a few shopping habits is only a small part of the solution: “Waste Not, Want Not” might be more applicable to modern America than we think.
The waste of good food starts in the field. In 2016, The Guardian reported that sixty million tons -over 50%- of the produce grown in the United States is thrown away each year. Why? The Guardian article sheds some light: “Vast quantities of fresh produce are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock, or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards.”
That’s right, folks. Sixty million tons of fit-for-human-consumption produce never makes it to the grocery store because it isn’t attractive enough. It seems the American search for photoshopped perfection has reached much further than celebrity photos and lifestyle magazines. “In our search for the perfectly round, perfectly colored, perfectly sized peach, we as consumers ultimately drive much of this waste,” says Dana Gunders, a senior scientist in the National Resource Defense Council’s Food and Agriculture Program. Sometimes entire fields of produce are plowed under to decompose and fertilize the next crop because of “blemished” produce: it costs more to harvest and sort the “bad” crop from the “good” crop than the farmer will net selling it.
“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from a corn field.” This quote from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower still holds true: we cannot put the blame on farmers. They know that the fruits and vegetables they produce will taste wonderful, even if they aren’t the ideal shape or size. As is usually the way with capitalism, the largest buyers are able to set the standards and the price for the produce they sell, and big grocery stores will not take anything less than perfection. Large grocery chains will sometimes even fine the farmer if they do not provide the agreed-upon volume of produce of the right quality. This means farmers who want to sell their product have no choice but to offer only perfect produce. Smaller businesses simply cannot get good prices for less-than-perfect produce: those who try to sell blemished fruits and veggies to mom-and-pop grocery stores, independent buyers, co-ops, or farmer’s markets have just as much trouble. “I’ve been offering [blemished squash] for six cents a pound for a week and nobody has pulled the trigger,” said one farmer in an interview with Suzanne Goldberg, an environmental correspondent for The Guardian. “There is a lot of hunger and starvation in the United States, so how come I haven’t been able to find a home for six-cents-a-pound food yet?”
While over half of the viable fruits and vegetables grown in America never make it to the dinner table, statistics indicate that about 40% of ALL food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. Fortunately for America, meat production has a lower waste quotient. According to a paper published by the NRDC, meat has a waste margin of 22%, in comparison to the whopping 52% for fruits and vegetables. However, with Americans consuming an average of 270 lbs of meat a year (in comparison to the people of Bangladesh, who consume an average of 4 lbs of meat per person per annum), 22% is still a massive amount of meat gone to the landfill. Of that 22%, only 3% is lost in production (that is, the raising of livestock): the bulk of the wasted meat can be traced to individual consumers. “Thirty percent of milk produced in America is thrown away because of inefficiencies that let it expire or spoil before it can nourish anyone. All that energy, all that shipping, all that cattle feed, all that refrigeration, all that effort – nearly a third of it is wasted, thrown away, trashed,” Edward Humes writes in his book “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash.” Seafood wastage is even worse: in a time when “Save The Ocean” campaigns and overfishing run rampant, the shocking news is that about half of seafood in the U.S. is squandered. If seafood wastefulness is not reduced, seafood resources will become scarce, aquatic life will continue to suffer dramatically, and oceanic ecology will be thrown offbalance (Love, et al.).
So what causes consumer food waste? There are several factors. Fear of not having enough often drives consumers to over-buy. In 1973, when Bill Rathje first started The Garbage Project (a study which took the science of understanding culture through archeological digs and applied it to local municipal dumps, garbage cans, and landfills), there was a shortage of feed for cattle that caused an extreme spike in the price of red-meat. Surprisingly, during the shortage the amount of beef ending up in the trash more than doubled. Turns out it’s human nature: when people think something is in short supply, they panic and try to stock up, buying more than they can possibly eat before the expiration date.
Consumers also tend to buy too much when there are too many options: why choose Pepsi or Coke when you could buy both? “A country like America has twice as much food on its shop shelves and in its restaurants than is actually required to feed the American people,” said writer and environmentalist Tristram Stuart in his 2012 TED talk. Ironically, according to self proclaimed “Garbologist” Bill Rathje, you produce less waste if your diet is repetitive and consistent. “Novelty breeds waste,” Edward Humes agrees. With twice as much food as we need it’s no wonder consumers over-buy and under-use. And yet, one in seven Americans still goes hungry. Imagine the number of food banks and homeless shelters that could be stocked entirely on food that never makes it off the farm. Imagine the number of meals that could be made out of food that goes bad in your fridge.
Imagine the number of hungry people that could be fed on “ugly” produce. If you’re imagining millions, you’d be in the right ballpark: if we reduced the margin of wasted food by just 15%, the U.S. could feed upwards of 25 million more people.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advocates the sustainable management of food with their “Food Recovery Hierarchy” pyramid. The second tier, “Feed Hungry People,” encourages people to donate unused, edible food to food banks in order to better feed the hungry. On their website, they provide valuable resources to anyone who wishes to donate time, money, or food to the cause. Organizations like the National Resource Defense Council and Move for Hunger offer lists of do’s and don’ts for consumers: do shop local (at small mom-and-pop groceries and farmers markets), don’t throw away food (compost instead), and do educate yourselves about expiration dates. They also offer a list of organizations that help reduce wastefulness, like Imperfect Produce and Hungry Harvest, produce delivery systems that sell the produce that doesn’t meet big-store cosmetic standards. Imperfect Produce boasts nineteen million pounds of food saved since its inception in 2015; Hungry Harvest claims 8 million pounds of food saved, with 750,000 donated to “hunger-solving organizations.” If organizations like these continue to grow, we may see a change in the impossible standards set for the produce industry as large grocery store chains try to weed out the competition.
What about long-term solutions to the problem of American corpulence? There are many things that will help, but all of them boil down to one word: Sustainability. The problem we need to solve is much bigger than imperfect peaches and the price of beef: wasted food is responsible for approximately 8% of global pollution. To put it in perspective, that is more pollution than is generated by the entire country of India (Guardian). Large-scale farms that use chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds to mass produce a singular crop, sometimes called Industrial Agriculture by organic farmers, are causing huge waste and pollution problems beyond just wasted food. Nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers are depleting soil nutrients and over-saturating the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Cow manure contributes to global warming, pesticides permeate and poison soil and watershed, and rivers dammed to provide irrigation disturb the habitat of fish and endanger wildlife. Most people claim that industrial agriculture is a necessary evil – even if the U.S. has a food surplus, how else can we fight hunger in third world countries? How can we provide enough food for the ever increasing global populous? Certainly organic agriculture, which cannot be protected with chemical insecticides and genetically modified seeds, can’t feed 7.5 billion?
In a 2006 study titled Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply, a team of researchers sought to compare industrial agriculture with organic agriculture to determine if the world’s increasing population could be fed with organic practices. “The environmental price of green-revolution agriculture includes increased soil erosion, surface and groundwater contamination, release of green-house gases, increased pest resistance, and loss of biodiversity. (Green revolution in this case does not refer to common current environmental usage of the term green but rather refers to chemically intensive farming practices beginning the mid twentieth century.) Advocates [for organic agriculture] argue that more sustainable methods of food production are essential over the long term… If the latter view is correct, then we seem to be pursuing a short-term solution that jeopardizes long-term environmental sustainability.” Their consensus? An increase in the number of small, organic farms would enrich the soil, detoxify the air and water poisoned by chemical sprays, and increase food production. More organic farming would provide more jobs, lowering unemployment and homelessness. In combination with a change in consumer habits and grocery store cosmetic standards, organic farming could decrease agricultural pollution and lower food-waste percentages dramatically long-term. This is a sustainable solution.
U.S. Food Bulletin, Circa WWI
America has an obsession with food, an obsession that has led us to a 165 million-dollar problem. Food production in the United States takes up 80% of our fresh water, 50% of our land, and 10% of our energy budget, yet we waste 40% of our food. Our ancestors knew better. Grandma pickled vegetables so they’d last through the winter, Great-Grandpa fed the kitchen scraps to the pigs and the chickens. We have the opportunity to make the world a better place by downsizing our own wastefulness. As individuals we can think before we buy, eat everything we put in our fridge and in our pantries, and we can compost table scraps. As communities, we can gather grocery store surplus to feed the hungry in shelters and churches, we can support local farmer’s markets, we can promote healthy habits. As a country, we can petition big stores to change their cosmetic standards for produce, we can advocate for organic agricultural practices, we can raise awareness of the issues. We can bring about change. We can “Waste Not, Want Not.”
Imperfect Produce, www.imperfectproduce.com
Badgley, Catherine, and Jeremy Moghtader “Organic Agriculture and the Global Food Supply” Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems
Walsh, Brian “The Triple Whopper Environmental Impact of Global Meat Production” Time
“Food Waste on the Farm” Move For Hunger
Humes, Edward. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash
Hungry Harvest, www.hungryharvest.net
Goldenberg, Suzanne “Half of All US Food Produce Is Thrown Away” The Guardian
Gunders, Dana National Resources Defense Council
Love, Dave C., et al. “Wasted Seafood in the United States”
“Reduce Wasted Food By Feeding Hungry People” Environmental Protection Agency
Stuart, Tristram “The Global Food Waste Scandal” TED: Ideas Worth Spreading
Townsend, Alan R., et al. “The Climate Benefits of Better Nitrogen and Phosphorus Management” Issues in Science and Technology