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From watermelon and berries to sun-ripened tomatoes and peaches, summer is when we most enjoy local fruits and vegetables, so fresh and plentiful just now. Produce defines summertime picnics; like many of you, I savor these foods because they’re in-season, local and readily available.
However, in America, we don’t always balance or value our bounty. We actually experience a food glut, daily, along with a resulting situation of horrible waste.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture 2015 figures, a shocking 31 percent of all U.S. produced food goes uneaten; each American discards more than 36 pounds of groceries every month. The USDA further found that a typical American throws out 40 percent of all the fresh fish, 23 percent of the eggs, and 20 percent of the milk that they buy.
Imagine what that means for the 800 million people who suffer from starvation across the globe. Waste actually encourages a self-perpetuating cycle, driving the specious argument that we need to grow more food and use chemicals that promise increased yields. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, globally we waste 2.9 trillion pounds of food annually, enough to feed those 800 million people twice over, with millions of pounds to spare.
Why does this happen? In a way, the problem is too much food. Immense quantities of grain, dairy, meat and produce are reaching U.S. stores – but retailers’ policies and consumer behavior translate into immense waste. By design, retail chains discard tons of fresh produce because it is “unattractive,” and dispose of food nearing sell-by dates, even though it’s still fresh. Consumers are encouraged to stock up on on-sale foods, but how many of us have thrown away food we thought we might eat, but never got around to cooking?
In the developing world, most losses occur further down the supply chain. Inadequate infrastructure, storage, refrigeration, transportation and similar, mean that most wasted food simply never makes it to the people waiting for it.
These impacts resonate. When food is wasted, the resources that it took to produce, process and transport it are also wasted. Massive amounts of chemicals, fertilizer and fuel; acres of land; and — in the U.S. — 25 percent of all freshwater used, go to produce food that is, incredibly, thrown away. Uneaten food ends up in landfills, where its decomposition accounts for nearly 25 percent of U.S. emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas more than 20 times more harmful than CO2, according to the EPA.
We have to be smarter about getting food to where it needs to be. It requires communication, policy revision and a different mindset.
• Firstly, greater coordination will be needed between farmers, wholesalers and retailers. Developing farmer-buyer agreements will be critical, as well as raising awareness among industries, retailers and consumers to the problem and challenges of food waste.
• We need to stop wasteful retail policies that dispose of imperfect looking produce, and need to work with sellers and consumers to rethink their idea of what’s acceptable. Perceptions can change: heirloom tomatoes taste wonderful, but two decades ago, no one would have bought tomatoes that were not perfect.
• We also need to make good use of food that is presently thrown away, in addition to instituting industry practices to decrease the staggering levels of waste and municipal and Federal laws that indemnify donors, such as the U.S.’s Bill Emmerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act.
There’s a common thread in these solutions, and that takes us back to our summertime picnic. It all comes down to value and respect. We value the food we are eating because we know its perishable. And, we respect the food we eat, and the resources it represents, by bringing a limited amount — only what we can actually eat and share with friends. If we respect food, we aren’t tempted to waste it, and that is what we need to recognize and rekindle.
The culture of mass consumption and production without respect to nature further distances us from our food. Through Natural Agriculture and organic production, respect for food is changing. As consumers, we should remember what goes into growing and distribution. By supporting smaller-scale, local agriculture and markets, buying what we can actually eat, respecting food and changing the way we produce, consume and distribute food, we will go a long way to correcting the epidemic of waste in our lives and in the lives of others around the world.