Articles / Food Waste Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg


Food Waste Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Published August 17, 2023

Why worry about the corn husk when the corn itself is grown for nonsensical purposes?

No one is going to argue in favor of “food waste,” but it’s a small part of a larger issue, one that we might call “resource waste.” Here’s the nub: It doesn’t make sense to worry about the corn husk when the corn itself is grown for nonsensical purposes — like ethanol and Sugar Pops and chicken nuggets — with staggering ecological and public health consequences. 

Unfortunately, there’s little indication that the agencies with the power to deal with this issue (both government and non-) are making serious efforts to do so, for exactly the reasons you’d imagine, chief among them that reducing actual waste would threaten profits. 

“Food waste” is usually defined as food that is grown and harvested but for some reason never gets eaten. This is not a small problem, but it is surmountable. An estimated 38 percent of the edible food produced in the United States goes uneaten; as it rots, it releases into the air enough super-harmful methane (CH4, which is estimated to be 80 times more potent than CO2) to account for six percent of all the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. If only we cleaned our plates, right? Wrong.

To the extent that food waste is actually a problem, the solutions on offer are remarkably shortsighted. In collaboration with the nonprofit ReFED (the word doesn’t seem to mean anything, but it’s “…a national nonprofit dedicated to ending food loss and waste by advancing data-driven solutions”), three high-profile agencies — the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — got together in 2015 to work on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. Together, ReFED and the agencies have devoted considerable resources to the issue. But in eight years, food waste has stayed the same when looked at as a percentage of food produced, and, if measured by weight, it has actually increased. So they’ve failed, and miserably. 

At least in part that’s because they are, as is not uncommon, blaming the victim, and we see that when we look at the real “causes” of wasted food. 

Much is made of expiration date labeling and food safety matters, but these account for only 10 percent of food waste, and that could be quickly reduced by smarter labeling. (Of course, manufacturers love it when you toss out perfectly good food because it’s past the “best by” date.). Excess supply comprises about 24 percent of wasted food, with 15 percent actually spoiling; some of that is avoidable, but not all. 

But the largest chunk of food waste — 30 percent — is due to “trimmings and byproducts”; the responsibility for this is led by households, followed by produce farms, manufacturing, and food service, in that order. Like me, you may have believed that corporate supply chains would be more casually wasteful and therefore a bigger source of the problem, but apparently, it’s our eggshells, potato skins, and banana peels. But these fruit and vegetable trimmings produced in the home are mostly not edible. It’s hardly likely that it’s our inability to find a use for melon rinds that’s threatening the ecological stability of the entire planet. 

Government sincerely leads its proposed solutions with teaching people to waste less food. It raises my heart rate to contemplate this, while in the last five years food prices have increased over 20 percent, food insecurity persists in more than one in ten households, and wages have frozen for generations while the cost of everything essential has gone up. Because this way of assigning blame doesn’t only fall more on individuals than on institutions; it falls hardest on those without the money to eat out. Thus this “solve food waste at home” approach not only puts the burden on eaters, it lands most squarely on poorer eaters, who are, presumably, failing to make body scrub with their orange peels. 

Yet blaming regular people is exactly what government agencies are intent on doing. Even in that context, though, their recommendations are nonsensical. For example, the proposed solutions to food waste are ranked according to “net financial benefit,” because solutions must be profitable. This logic — if one can call it that — kicks the concept of universally available composting to the middle of the pack, because it would cost money. But if people don’t waste food as a result of being “educated,” there’s a “financial benefit.” Government: “Look how much money we saved you by teaching you that your cabbage is still edible!” This, then, is the top solution.

There’s another huge issue with this “38 percent of edible food goes uneaten” business. Of this total “food waste,” 41 percent is either composted, fed to animals, or

left in an agricultural field and at least possibly tilled in and returned to the land. In a crisis of soil fertility, this recirculation is hardly a bad thing. And if you don’t count that recycled food as “food waste,” then the dreaded “38 percent” statistic would actually be more like 25 percent. Furthermore, if we tripled our composting as a nation — which wouldn’t be hard, or expensive — the number would fall to under 10 percent, which seems tolerable. So just a sprinkle of government power in the form of free and mandatory composting would create thousands of jobs by expanding a huge supply chain of beneficial organic matter, and make our “food waste” metrics more understandable and far less shameful.

While dealing with food waste is often seen as low-hanging fruit in our snail’s-pace effort to cut carbon emissions, this approach is both illogical and misleading. Because the food waste paradigm, while disturbing, doesn’t account for the much larger problem of the misuse of agricultural resources that create food in the first place. Yes, it’s important that restaurants moderate portion sizes; that supermarkets get better about donating edible foods; that we all have access to free composting; and even that less produce should be left in the field when it could be processed, preserved, and sold or given away. But as we’ve seen, these adjustments amount to nibbling at the edges of the massively wasteful system we use to produce food. 

Of course it’s much easier for government agencies to urge us to clean our plates than it is for them to assign and address responsibility for the massive waste of resources inherent in the food system. But if we’re going to combat this, we must begin by understanding which problems are real and which ones provide cover for our destructive status quo.

The major shift — and it’s undeniably quite major, though not inconceivable — would be to plan agriculture with the goal of feeding our population well. Right now, we waste land, soil, water, and our theoretical carbon quota with brazen disregard for the societal purpose of agriculture, which is to nourish people. 

To prove this, it’s enough to look at corn and soybeans. In 2017, American farmers harvested 175 million acres of these two crops in roughly equal proportions. That’s about 55 percent of all the crops harvested that year, grown in an area larger than the state of Texas, most of it on some of the best farmland in the world. 

So how are the majority of the crops we grow being used? The U.S. corn crop, which covers an area roughly the size of California, is our most common crop and enviably calorie-dense. Yet almost none of that corn is used to feed people directly. Close to 45 percent of the crop goes to biofuel: Every year, enough corn to cover New York State gets refined into ethanol in a program that was supposed to be environmentally friendly, but is in fact an environmental disaster. Yet the “ethanol mandate” churns on purely for the purpose of market and political stability. No one dares question ethanol’s amazingness, because politicians understand that doing so would cause “farmers” (corporate lobby firms that speak on behalf of industrial farmers) to throw a tantrum, and no one in Washington understands the farm system well enough to offer alternatives, much less build enough power to begin the transition. (If there were a smart president supported by a smart Congress … that’s the work.) 

Instead, since we use farmland primarily to produce profits, few in power see a problem with any of this, and are happy to go along with whatever twisted rationales the plutocrats with political connections in “corn country” can come up with. And that pretty much seems to work for the representatives who negotiate the Farm Bill and run the EPA. 

So, when you hear your aunt Samantha or cousin Jerry starting in on food waste, remind them that ethanol uses roughly a fifth of our entire annual crop harvest. Zillions of calories — burned inside gas tanks. Can you dream up a more shameless and unnecessary waste of a food crop? 

A close second is livestock food. We’ve long known that meat production is an inefficient use of food resources as well as a massive contributor to the greenhouse effect. As a country, the easiest way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from food is to eat less beef, and that’s been happening gradually over time. In the long run, we must build on this progress, and start working towards a deliberate slowdown in meat production in the name of planetary survival. But instead, the U.S. is hustling to export more and more meat, and succeeding. We’ve also had a surplus of milk for over a century, and that oversupply has killed small farms so mega-dairies can make yogurts and powders and pizza cheese for junk food and the export market. This, too, is waste, and a lot of it.

But using some corn for livestock production might even be justifiable if any more than two percent of the entire crop was consumed directly as food. Some 15 percent is exported; and the remainder — after ethanol and animal feed — is used for sodas and chips and additives and sweeteners. It’s a stretch to call this food, because rather than sustain people, it spurs chronic disease and shortens lifespans. So who’s wasting what? 

Soybeans, of which we grow almost as much as corn, are used primarily (70 percent) to feed animals; almost all the rest is crushed into additives and cooking oils for packaged and fast food. 

So it comes down to this: If we grew good food for everyone in the United States, we wouldn’t be worrying about waste. There would be meat, but less of it. There would be tens of millions of acres currently used for ethanol put permanently at rest to draw down carbon (and substantially reduce agriculture’s climate footprint and water quality problems). We would have more edible beans, more whole grains, more fruit and nut orchards. The diet wouldn’t be tasteless or lean; there’s plenty of land to produce plenty of calories to feed everyone with culinary verve. What we would stop doing is extracting as much raw material from the land as possible to sell to the highest bidder, no matter the usefulness of that product to society.

Food waste’s urgency as an ecological problem is itself an outcome of the wastefulness involved in food production. Improving our food production system would immediately reduce the environmental impact of food waste. Use half the resources we now use to produce food, and “food waste” is half the problem it is right now. This obvious fact highlights the futility of an approach that focuses on the “last mile” of the food supply chain, an approach that shields the corrupt and cynical production system from criticism.

It’s not surprising: Among the donors to ReFED, the main contractor powering government efforts to mitigate food waste, are Walmart, General Mills, Unilever, and Kroger. There’s no conspiracy here; it’s just that ideas of what constitutes a “problem” and their attending solutions are going to draw more enthusiastic support from the powers that be, and that those “solutions” are going to put the burden on eaters (and, as I said, the poorer ones, at that), an approach that draws attention away from the real problem. 

Many regular people take responsibility for their role in climate change because they care. This is a good thing, but it’s ridiculous in this context. Corporations and shareholders and the financial elite don’t care, because the very problem is the source of their gigantic incomes. 

It’s up to us to reject narratives that blame ordinary people for the environmental impact of food production. This process begins by understanding how the system uses resources, and continues with outlining coherent solutions to the biggest problem, which is the runaway resource use in our food system. We should think of agriculture as a collective act of grocery planning, understanding our land as a precious resource to be used wisely, rather than the extraction zone for a collection of industries that need to grow at the expense of everything else. Because it’s this system that is driving us into oblivion, not your broccoli stalks and apple cores.