In the United States, “farm to fork” has become “farm to dumpster” as American farms, processors, manufacturers, grocers, restaurants and homes increasingly waste food.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that food waste has increased dramatically, rising 50 percent between 1974 and 2003, and recently replaced paper as the largest single component in our landfills.
Every day, America wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl stadium. From farms to processors, from retailers to restaurants and homes, food is lost at every step of the way. According to one government study, 40 percent of food grown or raised domestically is not eaten.
Across the globe, a third of all food — about 1.3 billion tons per year — goes to waste, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.
This has significant environmental and economic impact. Wasting food squanders the oil and water used to produce it, and food rotting in landfills creates climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.
Food not consumed represents a $250 billion loss per year, according to a 2011 McKinsey & Company report. U.S. supermarkets alone lose about 11 percent of their fresh fruit to waste, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And then there’s the dubious morality of throwing away so many potential meals in a nation where 15 percent live in food-insecure homes.
The food waste issue has started to receive more attention. Studies by McKinsey and other private groups increasingly list the issue as a rising trend. Even the Food Network has highlighted the issue with a special called “The Big Waste.”
Enhanced interest has trickled into technology. Tufts University professor Fiorenzo Omenetto is developing edible patches to be placed on fresh foods that detect bacteria levels. These patches communicate to smartphones whether food is still good to eat. These “food tattoos” could be available in three to five years.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers have developed sensors to detect a fruit’s ripeness. These ethylene sensors would be placed on boxes of fruit to let grocers know when to put fast-ripening items on sale.
LeanPath, a technology company that tracks waste, lets kitchen staff in universities, hospitals and elsewhere track the amount and causes of food loss so it can be minimized.
Another effort called Zero Percent is using an app and online platform to help restaurants list last-minute deals and send donation alerts to local soup kitchens.
Co-founder Rajesh Karmani envisions a national future for his idea: “We can potentially make a big dent in the food waste issue by enabling real-time communication between the supply (restaurants, cafes) and the demand (discount-seeking consumers).”
Not all innovations are technological. Halfsies is an initiative hoping to harness the American phenomenon of extra-large restaurant portions. Co-founder Rachel Smith said the idea is to offer patrons of participating restaurants the option of a half-portion meal at the regular price. A percentage of that meal then will be donated to charities that aim to eliminate food waste and feed the hungry. The company is running pilot programs this year in Texas and New York.
Several states and municipalities are taking action, too. Oregon is now allowing fishing companies to process the “bycatch” of fish caught mistakenly, which had been illegal and led to massive losses of edible fish include salmon.
Massachusetts recently announced plans to ban commercial food waste from landfills by 2014. Massachusetts Environment Commissioner Kenneth Kimmell said the goal is to ease the burden on landfills, reducing methane emissions and utilizing the untapped value of food waste through composting and anaerobic digestion, a source of renewable energy. “The ban is not really about reducing waste, but redirecting it to a higher use,” Kimmell said.
The question, then, is what to do with our inevitable, inedible excess.
San Francisco, which started the trend of civic composting in 1996, has a lofty goal — to send nothing to landfills or incinerators by 2020.
In 2009, Seattle also instituted mandatory food-scrap composting, and today, more than 200 communities have noncompulsory programs.
Even with these growing efforts, according to the EPA, about 97 percent of U.S. food scraps end up in a landfill or incinerator. Still, recycling was once a radical idea, and today, more than half of Americans can do it curbside.
Bloom is the author of “American Wasteland” and the creator of the blog wastedfood.com.