More food waste


By Sherry Ackerman

Food waste at the consumer level in industrialized countries is almost as high as the total net food production in sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas 40% of food losses in developing countries are a result of inadequate storage, 40% of losses in industrialized countries occur at the retail and consumer level.

Put simply, consumers no longer want to buy bruised peaches or misshapen tomatoes, even if the nutrition content, taste and quality of this food is the same as one that looks perfect. This bias accounts for 1.5 trillion pounds of annual food waste in the US, and costs approximately $680 billion in annual losses.

It is important to reiterate that in the US, this loss does not occur between harvest and markets, but at the retail and consumer level. This food waste comes at an annual expense of 3.3 billion gigatonnes of CO2 and 66 trillion gallons of water. Adding insult to injury, 40% of landfill content comes from this food waste. And, only 3% of it is currently composted or recycled.

With 1.2 billion people food-insecure or undernourished, millions of vulnerable smallholder farmers losing profits they can't spare, and a population expected to increase by two billion by 2050, we cannot afford to allow these losses to continue. And, it's all about our unwillingness to buy an apple that doesn't look like a glossy magazine photo.

Forty-nine million Americans report having trouble putting meals on the table, according to the US Department of Agriculture. While those families struggle, billions of dollars of food are being wasted because others won't buy a banana with a brown spot on it. This really begs the question of entitlement.

Our cultural affluence has led us to, perhaps unconsciously, believe that the world revolves around us. We've been programmed to think that if buying only perfect avocados makes us feel better about ourselves, then we should do it. Concepts of self-esteem have been distorted to where making decisions based solely on what we want, while disregarding the impact of our actions on others, is considered healthy. By promoting excessive self-focus and encouraging self-indulgence, our culture reinforces a worldview in which entitlement attitudes thrive: that life is all about getting what we want.

When this attitude, however, gets applied to food, the results are deleterious. How can we 'deserve' only firm, unblemished perfect tomatoes at the expense of a hungry child?

If you are a gardener you know that each piece of produce is uniquely individual. Some do look like Hollywood celebrities and others look like oddly dressed eccentrics. Either way, they pack the same nutritional content, taste and quality. It is a symptom of our current alienation from nature that we do not know that all of the pears on a tree do not look like a photo in a seed catalog.

If, as consumers, we become more willing to buy produce that is still fresh and serviceable, but, perhaps, blemished, the issue of food waste can be substantially improved. When grocers know that there is a market for a spotted banana or dimpled apple, they will not, ipso facto, simply discard them. Changing these market trends could be the beginning of making a real difference in food insecurity throughout the US.