Food production and consumption is a crucial part of our existence as humans in a progressive and ever-changing environment. Not only is the availability of good, nutritious produce important to sellers, consumers seek the best quality fruits, vegetables and meat. How does food waste in the retail industry impact the environment? And more importantly, is there a solution? There are many environmental, and social implications of food waste. The FAO states that the contribution of food wastage to global warming is almost equivalent to global road transport emissions which is an average of 87 percent. More environmental consequences include wasted energy, overusing resources and diminishing landfill space. Labeled as the food-value process, farm to fork, seed to shelf, the production, keep and transport of these goods, sourced from farms and factories has overlooked the “frivolous” attitudes of producers, retailers and consumers when it comes to food waste.
Let’s take a closer look at food waste in globally, then at the United States, to grasp the extent of the food waste problem overall. Even though the world produces enough food to feed every one of us, one billion people in the world live in hunger. Every year, between one-third and one-half of all food produced globally is wasted. On average, the United States spends $218 billion, 1.3% of gross domestic product (GDP), on growing, processing, transporting and disposing food for human consumption of which is never eaten. Though the supply of food today has increased, food waste has negative consequences for food security due to an inadequate distribution and access. Food waste has continued the problem of hunger and economic disparity. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), reducing food loss by just 15 percent would be enough to feed 25 million Americans a year when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to put on their table. 45 percent of fruits and vegetables, 35 percent of fish and seafood, 30 percent of cereals and 20 percent of meat and animal products are wasted annually, adding up to a steady 63 million tons of annual food waste! Who do we blame for this crisis? In economically developed countries, consumers are responsible for the majority of food waste at 38-40%, and the household has the highest environmental, social and economic costs. Surprisingly, food retailers only contribute to 5% of food waste and could potentially regain 5.1 dollars for every dollar invested in reducing food waste.
From overstocking shelves, to harvesting excess produce that is not used, to buying more than your pantry can fit, it is a joint effort to make a change– retailers are crucial to make a change. To understand the magnitude of the food waste problem, the causes of food waste must be identified. In highly developed countries, such as the United States, food products are produced at a high level and is also cheap because of advanced technology. Therefore, Americans spend much less of their income on food and buy huge quantities; we are not appreciating the true value of food. Food products are thrown away when they are still okay to consume, despite the reliance of the ‘sell-buy’ and ‘best-buy’ labels. In highly industrialized food systems, consumers often seek out the most aesthetically perfect, fresh produce with the lowest prices. Mainly, consumers today buy food products consistently from large-food retailers because of cheap prices and consistency of items available. To name a few, Wal-Mart, Costco, Kroger all have one business model they follow: high-volume, low margin. Selling an exponential amount each day at a lower price, customers are guaranteed a certain experience. Supermarkets attempt to follow this model, as they stock shelves with the best-looking, best-tasting products at the lowest possible price. By holding to customers standards and keeping produce colorful, variant and cheap, these big businesses make money. Everyone loves to see fully stocked shelves and a lower price on their receipt- but, 52.4 million tons of this food is sent to landfills. On the other hand, food wastage in poorer nations revolves around the production side, as developing countries lack the technology and infractructure to improve agriculture, transportation and shelf-life of products.
Combatting the food waste problem is crucial to meeting the food demands of a growing population. Retailers have the initiatives, knowledge and resources to influence consumers in what they buy, cook and how they dispose of food in the home. My objective over the next three months is to explore sustainable solutions within the context of our criteria we discussed:
Food production and consumption in retail in the United States is sustainable if it’s initiatives, actions or impacts serve to meet the social and economic needs of the present and the future without exceeding planetary boundaries. This is best achieved using an inclusive and transparent process based on scientific principles that ensures:
- resource use that maximizes renewal, encourages re-use, and minimizes waste while protecting and restoring the health of natural systems, all organisms and biodiversity; and reducing pollution and mitigating global climate change;
- ethical economic development that promotes equitable opportunity and empowers rather than exploits people and the environment, and does not undermine peoples’ capacity to meet their own needs; and
- an elevated standard of human well-being for all people including but not limited to improved health and increased equitable access to basic human rights.
Best practice for meeting these objectives include using an inclusive process with transparent governance; and assessment through the development of measurable indicators that show improvement in each of the above criteria.
We have an incredible impact on our environment and our planet today. Known as the Anthropocene, human activity has influenced the trajectory of global systems for the worst. Is it irreversible? The uneducated assumption is no. However, despite the common knowledge that the age we live in is pretty much “crisis earth”, there are many things we can do to adapt, mitigate and maybe even reverse the damage that has been done. Food waste, in context of the Anthropocene, is perhaps one of the biggest issues sustainability activists must focus on. Bringing awareness of what we eat and how much gets wasted will not only empower individuals to make a change, but will bring light to food justice issues that may not be so evident: “Broadly, food justice “ensur[es] that the benefits and risks of where, what, and how food is grown and produced, transported and distributed, and accessed and eaten are shared fairly” (Gottlieb & Joshi, 2010, p. 6). As a lens for the global agrifood system, food justice challenges us to consider the impact of individual actions and collective, infrastructural changes that can prompt change and environmental progress.”