If food were produced evenly throughout the year, not one bite produced since New Year’s Day would make it to Americans’ mouths due to excessive food loss and waste
April 23, 2016, Washington, D.C.—Today marks a disappointing milestone for the American diet: With 31 percent of the year behind us, we have reached the calendar equivalent of how much food is lost or wasted every year in the American food system. In other words, if food were produced equally throughout the year, nothing produced since January 1, 2016 would have made it to the dinner table.
“In developed countries like the United States, food loss and waste happens at the supermarket and the dinner table more than the field,” said Shenggen Fan, Director General of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “Perfectly good fruits and vegetables that are slightly different, for example, often never make it to store shelves. Each lopsided apple or funky tomato that fails to meet certain visual standards is not only a waste of resources, but adds to the cost of food.”
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, loss and waste in the U.S. “accounts for approximately 31 percent—or 133 billion pounds—of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers and has far-reaching impacts on food security, resource conservation and climate change.” The National Resources Defense Council found that reducing food loss by 15 percent would save enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans each year—at a time when one in six Americans are food insecure.
Food loss and waste was a central part of the 2016 Global Food Policy Report, launched last month, which provides an in-depth look at major food policy developments and events in the past year, and examines key challenges and opportunities for the coming year.
“Reducing food loss and waste is critical for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals—both on increasing food security and protecting the environment,” said Maximo Torero, Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division Director at IFPRI and co-author of the report’s chapter on food loss. “It will require a common understanding of the concept, a collaborative effort to collect better micro-data across commodities, international commitment, concrete targets at the regional and country levels, and a thoughtful analysis of the weaknesses of food value chains to achieve these goals and, more importantly, feed more of the world’s hungry.”
Measuring food loss and waste is difficult; but most studies estimate that between 27-32 percent of food produced never makes it to the table. This number is even higher for foods that are particularly susceptible to loss and waste such as fruits and vegetables. Food loss and waste occur differently in developed and developing countries. In developing countries, most food is lost at the production level—investments in infrastructure, transportation, and packing industries is key. In developed countries, most food is wasted at the retail and consumer level.
Food loss isn’t the only troubling aspect of the American diet. Beef consumption is one of the most resource-intensive and environmentally impactful foods to produce. Beef production requires four times more land (and four times as much greenhouse gas emissions) than dairy for every unit of protein consumed. Additionally, beef is seven times more resource-intensive than pork and poultry, and 20 times more than pulses.
In 2009, adding one American to the global population would have required an additional hectare of land, or almost two football fields of land. It would also pump out an additional 16.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent each year—the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving from New York to Los Angeles and back seven times.
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The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) seeks sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty. IFPRI was established in 1975 to identify and analyze alternative national and international strategies and policies for meeting the food needs of the developing world, with particular emphasis on low-income countries and on the poorer groups in those countries. www.ifpri.org.