Lucyna Kurtyka, senior scientific program director at the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, moderated the final panel focused on the impacts of reducing food loss and waste on the environment, in addition to a health perspective related to consumers and to the workforce who deals with food loss and waste.
Lana Suarez, lead for sustainable management of food efforts at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),1 explained that the agency has a statutory obligation to minimize waste. Reducing food loss and waste is a component of its larger sustainable materials management program, defined as “an approach to serving human needs by using/reusing resources productively and sustainably throughout their life cycles, generally minimizing the amount of materials involved and all associated environmental impacts.”2 The program’s strategic plan takes a life cycle approach and includes sustainable management of food as one of its components. To the EPA, the preferred method to achieve food waste reduction is through source reduction and prevention strategies. In descending order of prefer-
2 EPA. 2009. Sustainable materials management: The road ahead. Washington, DC. Available at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-09/documents/vision2.pdf.
ence, other potential solutions include feeding people through food banks and other donation programs, use as animal feed, industrial uses such as rendering and fuel conversion, composting, and, as a last resort, landfill or incineration (Figure 6-1).
The EPA has developed a tool called the Waste Reduction Model, which is a life cycle greenhouse gas calculator for emissions specific to waste management.3 It can show the impact of landfilling a specific material (both food and non-food) compared with composting, recycling, or other strategies.
The national goal is to cut food loss and waste in half by 2030. Partnerships, sharing of best practices, and measurement are some of the ways to reach the goal. In terms of measurement, the EPA defines “wasted food” as food not used for its intended purpose and is what would be thrown away. “Excess food” is the food that may go to food banks or other recovery outlets. Ms. Suarez noted that this definition differs from others (see Chapter 2), which is important to keep in mind when reviewing measurements in the agency’s Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report.4
An effort to improve measurement pathways is in development, building on the concept that what gets measured gets managed. Improved data are coming from various sources, including the EPA’s Anaerobic Digestion Data Collection Project. This project surveyed facilities performing anaerobic digestion to determine how many are operating nationwide and how they function. The 3-year project collects data directly from standalone food waste digesters, digesters on farms, and water resource recovery facilities that co-digest food waste; 90 percent of the nation’s 154 identified operating facilities that received the survey participated.
Another recent initiative focuses on excess food. The agency’s Excess Food Opportunities Map is the first national map that shows the geographic dimensions of excess food, identifying more than 500,000 potential generators and 4,000 potential recipients of excess food. It is particularly useful when looking at a geographically specific area, such as a county, to see potential gaps in infrastructure—for example, many generators of excess food but no food banks. An improved version of the tool is in development,
4 EPA. 2018. Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures Report. Available at https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/advancing-sustainable-materials-management.
but Ms. Suarez invited participants to use it in its current form and provide feedback.5
The EPA is anticipating the release of another new tool in 2019 called the Sustainable Materials Management Prioritization tool suite for use at national, state, and organizational levels. It is intended to make life cycle assessment and decision making more accessible. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation, which includes Canada, Mexico, and the United States, also has two reports related to food loss and waste, one on
5 For more information, see https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/excess-food-opportunities-map.
the characterization and management in North America and the other on organic waste.6
The EPA has set up an incentive-based program called the Food Recovery Challenge, with about 1,000 businesses and organizations currently participating. To date, these groups have diverted 648,000 tons of food from solid waste facilities. There is an annual recognition program, and the website offers success stories and list of a variety of ways to participate. The EPA along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture also launched the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions group for businesses that commit to reduce food loss and waste in their own operations by 50 percent by the year 2030.
Roni Neff, assistant professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins University, brought in the health-related implications of food loss and waste related to nutrition, food security, food safety, and occupational health to the discussion. She noted these issues touch on many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) beyond SDG 12 related specifically to food loss and waste, including climate action (SDG 13), zero hunger (SDG 2), life below water (SDG 14), life on land (SDG 15), decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), and good health and well-being (SDG 3) (see Figure 6-2). She referred participants to a paper she co-authored that expands on the points in her presentation.7
Related to nutrition, there are opportunities and challenges. Poor nutrition and food waste share many risk factors, such as oversupply, low valuation of food, and large portion size. Encouraging people to eat “fresh” food results in a lot of waste, as people throw more food away. Conversely, convincing people to eat nothing but highly processed foods would result in
6 CEC (Commission for Environmental Cooperation). 2017. Characterization and Management of Food Loss and Waste in North America: Foundational Report. Montreal, Canada: CEC. Available at http://www3.cec.org/islandora/fr/item/11774-characterization-and-management-food-waste-in-north-america-foundational-report-en.pdf; and CEC. 2017. Characterization and Management of Food Loss and Waste in North America. Montreal, Canada: CEC. Available at http://www3.cec.org/islandora/en/item/11772-characterization-and-management-food-loss-and-waste-in-north-america-en.pdf.
7 Neff, R., R. Kanter, and S. Vandevijvere. 2015. Reducing food loss and waste while improving the public’s health. Health Affairs 34(11). Available at https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/10.1377/hlthaff.2015.0647.
less waste but also a less healthy diet, Dr. Neff stated. Strategies are needed to find a balance.
Dr. Neff and her colleagues have tried to quantify the lost nutritional value by associating U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Loss-Adjusted Food Availability data and nutritional data. They focused on under-consumed nutrients, including dietary fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, D, and E.8 Through waste at the consumer and retail levels, significant percentages of nutrients are lost, ranging from 12 percent of vitamin D to 48 percent of iron. Using dietary fiber as an example, 5.9 grams of dietary fiber per capita are lost each day, or 19 percent of a nutrient day of dietary fiber (as a percentage of the recommended daily allowance for adults aged 19 to 30 years old). In total, enough dietary fiber is wasted each day to meet the recommended daily allowance for 74 million women or 48 million men—that is, 27 percent of the U.S. adult population. Another way to use these data is to quantify the amount of nutrients that could be potentially recovered, which she noted has captured the public’s imagination and received media attention. (As a caveat, she warned that not all this food could or should be recovered.)
Dr. Neff was also involved in a survey of salvageable vegetable and berry losses at the Vermont farm level to estimate gaps in dietary intake. Women in the United States consume approximately 97 micrograms less vitamin A per day than recommended, and this study estimated that salvageable crops that are discarded could be used to fill the gap for 221,000 women.9 Another example focused on wasted seafood. A synthesis of available evidence across the U.S. supply chain showed that up to 47 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is wasted, which could fill 34 percent of the gap between current seafood consumption and USDA-recommended levels. In terms of lost nutrient years, Dr. Neff said the equivalent is 9.5 million men’s protein years, or 18.5 million adults’ omega-3 fatty acid years. These high levels have prompted a 4-year project to look at seafood waste in greater depth.
Preventing waste extends the food dollar for consumers and lessens Americans’ food insecurity. In the short term, many people, especially lower income, do not buy perishable foods that they think may go to waste. Finding ways to extend shelf life may help them purchase more of these
8 Spiker, M. L., H. A. B. Hiza, S. M. Siddiqi, and R. A. Neff. 2017. Wasted food, wasted nutrients: Nutrient loss from wasted food in the United States and comparison to gaps in dietary intake. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 117(7):1031-1040e22.
9 Neff, R. A., E. K. Dean, M. L. Spiker, and T. Snow. 2018. Salvageable food losses from Vermont farms. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 8(2):39-72.
foods, as well as to narrow the gap for global food demands in the longer term. However, reflecting what other presenters had said, she recognized the challenges in food recovery, including ensuring that it is healthy food. The argument has also been made, Dr. Neff observed, that food recovery efforts divert attention from addressing hunger and wasted food at their root causes. While we are a long way from this situation, a super-efficient food system also could provide less of a buffer during food emergencies.
Consumers frequently cite food safety as a reason for discarding food. There is an opportunity to educate people about what should and should not be thrown out. Another opportunity is to prevent food from becoming unsafe, such as through improved food storage and packaging. She acknowledged that people should not take safety risks to prevent waste, but that sometimes they are overly cautious.
Dr. Neff then turned to the topic of occupational injury and illness. Intervening to address food waste can provide jobs, but there are risks in food industry jobs, such as microbial risks or injuries around unstable piles of waste or processing equipment. Many new groups are getting involved in food recovery efforts, and their employees or volunteers may not have proper training or protections. There is no Occupational Safety and Health Administration oversight for small firms and for much of agriculture. Given that the Bureau of Labor Statistics data do not have a “wasted food” category, Dr. Neff examined data from the food industry in general. Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and refrigerated warehousing and storage have injury rates that are about double the national average. Rates of illness and fatalities in the food industry are many times higher than the national average, and she noted this area of research is untapped. Dr. Neff noted that the connection between wasted food and public health show both benefits and costs, and she urged that ways be found around the challenges to benefit both areas.
A participant discussed research on the effectiveness of reducing storage temperatures for perishables and the impact on greenhouse gas emissions, with great variation depending on the type of food. Dr. Neff said that packaging is another area that presents tradeoffs between food waste reduction and environmental impacts, as there may be a small increase in greenhouse gas emissions accompanying increases in food security. Ms. Suarez noted that the EPA’s Sustainable Materials Management Prioritization tool under devel-
opment may help balance these issues for decision making. It is not easy to make generic recommendations or prioritization, a participant observed, but real specific data are hard to come by. Prioritization tools often take different “slices” of the whole situation, Ms. Suarez agreed, but at least the new tool will provide some information with which to consider tradeoffs.