In the final session of the workshop, planning committee chair Ann Bartuska, vice president for land, water, and nature at Resources for the Future, described some main points that she identified from speaker presentations and panel discussions and asked for participants’ thoughts and suggestions.
Dr. Bartuska stated that the need for data was well expressed throughout the day but asked about the need for implementing public policy that reduces food loss and waste. An example is whether partnerships and other private-sector needs in this area could drive public policy at the federal or state level. While an increasing number of companies have adopted the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as a way to report on corporate sustainability, she wondered whether these goals are changing how policies are implemented or whether they serve more as a checklist.
Alison Grantham, director of Blue Apron’s food systems research and development, suggested research on how gaps in income exacerbate or contribute to food utilization challenges in the United States. She observed that the income gap needs to be taken into account in crafting policies and addressing root causes in the United States and across high-, medium-, and low-income countries. A participant responded to this latter point by stating that if food were more expensive, it might be more fully utilized. Food
prices are kept low, the participant noted, so people with lower incomes can afford it. Another participant reflected from the day’s presentations that the problem is different in the United States, where plate waste is a big factor, compared to countries where more loss occurs at the farm level. On the topic of extending shelf life, the question was raised whether consumers would accept more canned food and other ways of packing and processing food. The participant suggested additional research to connect social science and food safety science.
Dr. Bartuska pointed to economic research on water pricing at different income levels and asked about an analog in food waste and allocation. Dr. Grantham said that more research on consumer acceptance of frozen foods would be helpful. Dr. Bartuska noted that insights into this and other issues discussed during the workshop might come from behavioral economics.
Dr. Bartuska and other planning committee members facilitated a recap of the workshop by describing themes that they identified from speaker presentation and panel discussions. First, Dr. Bartuska reflected on three points made during the session on metrics for understanding food loss and waste:
- What gets measured gets managed, which underscores the importance of data.
- Looking across the entire supply chain is important to determine where adequate data exist and where there are gaps.
- An integrated, holistic approach to reducing food loss and waste includes consideration of land, water, energy, labor, transportation, and other impacts.
The workshop was designed to explore cost-benefit impacts of reducing food loss and waste on food availability, farmers, income, food prices, and the environment, and she pointed to many hopeful examples and case studies involving all sectors. One opportunity is “meal-kitization,” a term used by Elise Golan of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in her presentation (see Chapter 3) and discussed by others to describe packaged meals that result in less food waste. One question is how to communicate the value-added of these efforts to consumers. Several presenters cautioned
about the rebound effect (i.e., people buy more when prices are lower and they may waste more) as a possible drag on progress unless consumer habits are changed.
The workshop was also tasked with identifying research gaps and options for improving existing practices, taking into account the costs and benefits of reducing food loss and waste. Incentives for data sharing are mixed across the supply chain, which can limit the progress of programs that rely on information transparency. Dr. Bartuska emphasized that there is a need for holistic metrics (such as nutrients per hectare) in which food loss becomes part of the calculation. She also highlighted the significant data gaps discussed in the presentations, especially those related to waste in primary (on-farm) food production. Collecting more and better data across the value chain, including food consumption data (and especially in developing countries), is a priority, she said. It would be helpful to develop more elaborate modules and sampling methods for nationally representative household surveys, such as the Living Standards Measurement Study to address this issue.
While much of food loss and waste data are focused on quantity losses, there is a need to examine quality or nutrition loss. Highly nutritious food, such as fruit, vegetables, and animal products, is perishable and tends to have higher losses. Dr. Bartuska noted that better monitoring would help find cost-effective interventions for reducing food loss and waste in perishable foods.
The workshop also examined the role of governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector in adopting best practices to improve benefits and reduce costs. Dr. Bartuska lauded the many partnerships and innovative examples discussed throughout the day, such as the U.S. Food Loss and Waste 2030 Champions. However, she questioned whether adequate baseline data exist to know how progress will be measured toward the achievement of their goal of 50 percent less waste by 2030. The Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard (see Chapter 2) might help address current inconsistencies across government, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector in measurement methodologies and units of measurement. She also urged consideration of more collaborative strategies and analysis of disincentives, such as some food manufacturers’ contractual requirements that prohibit donation of food with their brand labeling.
Related to this latter point, a participant asked about any studies of the Good Samaritan laws (which exist in many states and could legally protect companies that donate food). A participant from the private sector replied
that many company lawyers, even in states with such a law, remain wary and require liability waivers in most cases. Strengthening the law could be helpful, this person said. Related to disincentives, one participant said if a company cannot make money from diverting waste and thus does not have a strong economic incentive, there needs to be another very powerful driver. Another comment was related to a possible connection between labor and food loss and waste. Many farms are experiencing labor shortages for seasonal work, which may mean leaving crops unharvested. The participant suggested research to understand the effects on food loss of these fluctuations.
Regarding opportunities for partnerships to address food loss and waste, many examples were identified throughout the day, including collaboration across federal agencies as well as World Wildlife Fund’s activity on No Food Left Behind, together with the Walmart Foundation and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Dr. Bartuska stated that alternative innovative uses of food waste would be needed, such as Toast Ale’s efforts on diverting surplus bread into craft beer (see Chapter 3), and that, overall, it is essential to develop innovative and collaborative approaches to reduce losses of perishable foods by identifying vertical farming technologies. She concluded that an integrated approach is needed to reduce food loss and waste in consideration of land, water, energy, labor, transportation, and other impacts.