Written by Suzanne Palmieri, GW Food Institute Senior Fellow
The facts are clear. We waste or lose 30%-40% percent of our food every year. One recent estimate reports that Americans are throwing away the equivalent of $165 billion each year. This is a policy imperative and one that should be in the interest of all sides – producers, retailers, communities and families. This is an issue that with the right policies will bring wins to all sides as well, including more products in the market, more food to feed a growing world population, and less waste in landfills. The U.S. has one the of the most advanced food production and food delivery systems in the world, we can also step up with advancements in science and technology to address food waste and loss.
As a bit of background, in October of 2014, as Associate Administrator for the Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), I joined the U.S. Delegation to the 41st Plenary Session of the Committee on World Food Security in Rome and gave the U.S. policy statement on food loss and waste activities. At that time I spoke of the initiatives launched by USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In June of 2013 the U.S. Food Waste Challenge was announced with the goal of leading a fundamental shift in how food and food waste are managed in the U.S. The Challenge included the goal of engaging a thousand participants by 2020. I also spoke about the Food Recovery Challenge designed to help companies, communities and other organizations more accurately track their food waste reduction activities which the EPA launched in 2010. I highlighted the incentives under the Bill Emerson Humanitarion Act that encourages donations from retailers to food banks and the enactment of favorable tax treatment of these donations. My statement was short but dense with facts and accomplishments that I later found out were quite a surprise to many of our international colleagues. In the following days of the conference, the most common comment I heard was, “ I had no idea the U.S. government was doing so much to address food loss and waste issues.” I was just as surprised at these observations because I believed that on hunger and environmental issues like this one, the US was an established leader. International interest in food loss and waste policies continued in several other venues. The next multilateral gatherings of the G20 and G7 included statements of policy regarding food loss and waste actions where the U.S. played a strong negotiating role. The adoption of the Sustainable Developemtn Goals (SDGs) in the fall of 2015 included a solid target for food waste and loss reduction (http://www.fao.org/sustainable-development-goals/indicators/1231/en/). The U.S. responded accordingly and under the leadership of USDA and EPA, the U.S. goal was set: by 2030 the U.S. pledged to reduce its food loss and waste by 50 percent. The lead agencies launched another private sector challege in 2016, this time the Food Waste Champions. Initially, 15 well-known food sector corporations stepped up to accept the challenge and also pledged to meet the SDG goal.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2018. According to the fact sheets on USDA and EPA’s websites, food loss and waste activities are continuing. The number of participating entities in the Food Waste Challenge is over 4000, well above the original goal and while the number of Food Waste champions (those committing to 50% reduction) has also increased, the number of pledges now stands at 21. My question is, at this pace, will this be enough?
I was encouraged to see the recent press stories about the meeting with Secretary Perdue a few weeks ago with Congressional leaders, Representatives Chellie Pingree and David Young. The USDA press release states that the purpose was to “raise awareness and discuss solutions.” Legislation has been introduced by Pingree and Young, The Food Recovery Act, to establish and support policies and programs for promoting food loss and waste activities. It’s also encouraging to see parts of this bill in the current version of the House Farm Bill. Again, my question is, will this be enough?
I think we know it’s time to up our game. Getting to strong solutions may not be simple. Our food system is complex so in turn, to address these issues, will we need to push for a broad and inclusive policy approach and cohesive, intergrated policies. As we think through how best to move the agenda forward, many questions arise. Here are a few: How do we set the right metrics to encourage accountability? Are there food safety issues that supercede food loss and waste goals? My colleague here at GW, recently blogged that USDA has programs that potentially encourage waste through our grading system (https://foodinstitute.gwu.edu/2018/03/23/do-usda-standards-encourage-food-waste/). Can we afford to continue with these marketing programs that encourage waste? Are there other federal programs that might have this unforeseen effect? And a question, from my time working in the international food assistance programs where the debate over cash versus food based relief continues around efficiency and beneficiary needs, how do we square the notion that cash gives dignity implying that food based donations do not?
We need to start answering these questions so innovators can bring forward responsive solutions. I look forward to the conversation.