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Zero Waste Food Systems

Zero Waste Food Systems

With globalization, people enjoy a wide variety of produce no matter the season. If you walk into a grocery store in January, you have five types of apples that have been flown in from all over the world to choose from. Unfortunately, this variety and convenience has come at a cost. The food supply chain is drowning in waste to meet this growing demand, and the mass distribution of food is having a detrimental impact on the planet. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations found that 30% of food produced globally is wasted every year - and that figure is even worse in wealthy countries. A staggering 80 billion pounds of food product is thrown away annually in the United States, amounting to a loss of $160+ billion. To put that data point into prespective, 80 billion pounds equates to nearly 220 pounds of waste per person. Combining all that “waste” and “left overs,” we would have more than enough resources and crops to feed the world, but due to a complex web of supply chains, multinational corporations and consumerism, people continue to go to bed hungry as pounds of fresh produce and food are thrown away on a daily basis.  

Although it is difficult to provide an exact estimate, most researchers in the field agree that a significant portion of waste in developed countries occurs at the consumer level. One of the reasons why is that many Americans have a cautious relationship with expiration labels. A recent Johns Hopkins survey found that 84% of participants discarded food near the package date “at least occasionally” and 37% reported that they “always” or “usually” discard food near the package date. The USDA has released explicit guidelines, though, stating that despite the expiration date passing, food that has no evidence of spoilage can still be consumed. Furthermore, packaging and marketing by big food companies in wealthier countries encourages consumers to over-purchase bulk food items, which usually goes to waste at home. 

Consumers are by no means the only ones to blame for this growing food waste problem. At the production level, harvesters overproduce crops for a wide variety of reasons. One example is due to environmental conditions in which pests or disease destroys crops and consequently, farmers need to hedge and diversify their portfolio. Harvesters will often grow more than demand requires, which produces excess crops that are not sold and consumed. They also can be forced to let entire fields of crops go to waste if they are not cost-effective to harvest and transport. Agribusiness and Food & Beverage companies have kept commodity prices extremely low, so if a farmer is not going to break even on a specific crop, they are stuck choosing between two bad choices: throw it out or threaten their livelihood. 

The pandemic exacerbated this food waste situation as well. Due to the global lock down, farmers had to let crops spoil in the fields because of a labor shortage. Some workers faced harsh working conditions that did not follow CDC guidelines and as a result, easily allowed for COVID-19 to be transmitted in food manufacturing plants. Workers in meatpacking factories and livestock farms that supply them were among the hardest hit by COVID-19 with at least 50,000 meatpackers infected with the virus. 

Unsurprisingly, all this food waste is contributing to global warming and augmenting many of the environmental issues affecting the planet. According to the World Wildlife Fund, “11% of all the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the food system could be reduced if we stop wasting food. In the United States alone, the production of lost or wasted food generates the equivalent of 37 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions.” While it may seem overbearing and unrealistic for one individual to have a positive impact, it is possible. Below are a few easy ways to reduce your food waste and live a greener lifestyle:

  • Plan a meal and stick with it: When you go to the grocery store, come prepared with a list so that you do not buy more than you need.

  • Shop local: Buy fresh, seasonal produce from your local farmer’s market. As food travels through every stage of the supply chain, it uses up natural resources - and even more so if the produce is out of season. Food that is not in season has a higher carbon footprint because the produce has to be grown in heated greenhouses, stored in refrigerators, and travel long distances. Not to mention that seasonal food is more nutritious. Therefore, becoming a regular at your local farmers market will not only reduce your food’s carbon footprint, but also help you become more integrated into your community. 

  • Understand where your food comes from: Purchase sustainable food that supports ethical labor practices and pays farmers the wages that they deserve. While it is easiest to do this at a farmer’s market, you can also do a quick Google search at the grocery store to get a better idea of your food’s origins. 

  • Start composting: Composting involves saving food scraps that can not be consumed, such as corn husks, coffee grounds, egg shells and nut shells. Instead of throwing these items into the garbage and sending them to the landfill, where they will create methane emissions that are harmful for the environment, compost these leftovers and transform what would have been waste into rich soil. 

  • Make it political: Call your local representative and ask for fair pricing systems for farmers or mandated adoption of ecological farming practice.  
  • While the food supply chain system is flawed, it can be fixed. The more people who start to become conscientious about food’s journey to their plate and prioritize sustainable sourcing, the quicker zero waste food systems will become a way of life - and the planet will thank you for it in the end! 

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