by Aisha Ommaya
It’s a common scenario. The forgotten hummus tucked behind the milk, those leftovers from last week’s takeout, that apple that looks a little mealy – the items that you throw away, possibly accompanied by a pang of guilt as you close the lid on the trash can. Wasting food seems unavoidable at times, but the problem goes much deeper than your ability to keep track of all the expiration dates of the contents of your fridge.
Each year, around 1.3 billion tonnes of food is thrown out while a staggering 2 billion people go undernourished or hungry. The World Economic Forum reports that most of the wastage occurs in the developed world. Per capita, we’re talking 95-115kg per year in North America and Europe vs. a paltry 6-11kg in sub-Saharan Africa and South/South-East Asia. Here in the US, we’re leading the food waste pack with around 40% of our food being trashed. As one of largest food producing countries in the world, it’s probably worth taking a look at why we waste so much of it.
We’re Picky about our Produce
And not in a good way. American consumers demand unblemished apples and nick-free cucumbers. When the produce isn’t pretty enough, consumers won’t buy it. Farmers and retailers end up tossing mass amounts “ugly” fruit and vegetables because they don’t meet our beauty standards. Some retailers (like Walmart) now have programs in place to market the ugly fruit and veg to consumers at a reduced cost proving once again that we’re total suckers for marketing. Want to buy a bruised peach? Probably not. Interested in that bag of “I’m Perfect” pears? Sure!
We’re all about convenience. In France, if you want meat you go to the butcher. Cheese? You hit up the fromagerie. Your bread comes from the boulangerie around the corner. In short, you shop often and eat locally-sourced products that are often devoid of the questionable preservatives required to give a product shelf life. In the US, we’re all about convenience. We want to hit up the closest Costco or Safeway and get all of our groceries in one place and en masse . We don’t want to add “buy groceries” to our seemingly endless to-do list for a long as possible. The problem with that time-saving tactic is that food goes bad faster than we can consume it. In the end, you’re not really saving as much as you think you are by cashing in on those great multi-buy promotions. It doesn’t seem quite fair that the French get fresh baguette and Macron while we’re eating high-fructose corn syrup infused bread while watching Trump putter around the Oval Office.
Arbitrary Expiry Dates
No one really wants to chance their Friday night on a jar of expired pickles, but did you know that those “use by” or “sell by” dates are unregulated? The process for determining shelf life can vary from store to store, while many are throwing out food well before the “sell by” date to maintain the perception that their products are as fresh as possible. Consumers are also confused by the labels. They equate the dates as indicators of safety and end up discarding perfectly consumable foods for fear of getting sick.
Lack of Legislation
That’s not to say there aren’t some good intentions out there. The USDA and EPA launched a Food Waste Challenge in 2013, and Obama later asked us to halve our food waste rate by 2030. The carrot would be a pat on the back or at best a small tax break, but where’s the stick? French supermarkets above a certain square footage are required by law to donate unsold food to charity or can face a fine. Without strong government incentives or sanctions on this side of the Atlantic, it’s unlikely that we’re going to hit that goal. Sorry, Barrack.
Ultimately, the issue of food waste is not just about wasted money or another reminder of the unequal distribution of resources. Landfills, packed with organic waste, are the largest source of methane emissions which in turn is a major contributor to global warming. In fact, a country made up of food waste would get the bronze medal for greenhouse gas emissions, with the US and China taking the top two spots. The sustainability community is already concerned about Trump abandoning the Paris climate agreement, so we might be SOL if we’re hoping for a top-down approach to food waste reduction.
Or Maybe, We’re Just Too Busy
Over 75% of Americans feel guilty for throwing away food, but 42% also claim they just don’t have time to worry about it. Drawing the link between household food waste and economic and environmental impacts still seems to be a struggle, but maybe we can carve out some time when we don’t have all those oceans to visit or wild animals to feed.