Chicago - Cleaning your plate may not help feed starving
children today, but the time-worn advice of mothers everywhere may help reduce
food waste from the farm to the fork, help the environment and make it easier
to feed the world’s growing population.
Hard data is still being collected, but experts at the
Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit in Chicago this week said an estimated 30%
to 50% of the food produced in the world goes uneaten.
The average American throws away 33 pounds of food each
month - about $40 worth - according to the Natural Resources Defense Council,
which plans to publish a report on food waste in April.
In a year, that means each person throws away almost 400
pounds of food, the weight of an adult male gorilla.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 23% of eggs
and an even higher percentage of produce ends up in the trash.
“We forget we have all these fresh fruits and vegetables,
and at the end of the week we have to throw them away,” said Esther Gove, a
mother of three young children in South Berwick, Maine. “Now, I don’t buy as
much fresh produce as I used to.”
But the impact of food waste stretches far beyond the
Agriculture is the world’s largest user of water, a big
consumer of energy and chemicals and major emitter of greenhouse gases during
production, distribution and landfill decay.
Experts say reducing waste is a simple way to cut stress on
the environment while easing pressure on farmers, who will be called on to feed
an expected 9 billion people around the world in 2050, versus nearly 7 billion
“No matter how sustainable the farming is, if the food’s not
getting eaten, it’s not sustainable and it’s not a good use of our resources,”
Dana Gunders, a sustainable agriculture specialist at the NRDC, said at the
In richer nations, edible fruit and vegetables end up in
landfills because they are not pretty enough to meet a retailer’s standards,
have gone bad in a home refrigerator or were not eaten at a restaurant.
In developing countries, much food spoils before it gets to
market due to poor roads and lack of refrigeration.
High food prices are another factor, since some people can’t
afford the food that’s produced, said Patrick Woodall, research director and
senior policy advocate for Food and Water Watch.
“It’s not a situation where you have to massively ramp up
production,” Woodall told the Reuters Summit. “Even in 2008, when there were
hunger riots around the world, there was enough food to feed people, it was
just too expensive.”
DuPont is working with farmers in Kenya to extend the life
of raw milk. Often farmers have to travel up to 20 kilometers to get their milk
to market, and due to the country’s high temperatures, much of the milk gets
wasted, Jim Borel, an executive vice president with DuPont, said.
“This has broad application, but we’re focused on Africa
right now,” Borel said.
Europe is a leader in tackling food waste, but the United
States is catching on as producers, facing tepid sales growth, look to control
For example, a General Mills pizza plant found a way to use
heat to make toppings stick to frozen pizzas better. The system is expected to
prevent thousands of pounds of cheese and other pizza toppings from going to
waste each year.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said 33 million tons
of food waste hit landfills and incinerators in 2010, the largest solid waste
product in the system. EPA has launched a programme to address the issue.
Experts from EPA and other groups have floated a variety of
recommended fixes. They say clarifying “sell by” and “use by” dates could help
consumers avoid throwing food in the garbage too soon.
Some food could be “rescued” and used in soup kitchens,
while certain leftovers could be used as animal feed.
Increasing composting could boost soil health and drought
resistance, while also easing the burden on landfills and reducing
decomposition of garbage into greenhouse gas methane.
Gove, the Maine mother, has found her own solutions. She
buys frozen blueberries and raspberries instead of fresh ones that may spoil;
purchases meat in bulk; and freezes what she doesn’t immediately need. She also
has introduced her kids to frozen banana treats, which means she’s able to keep
the fruit longer.
“Milk is one thing we don’t waste, though,” she said. “My
kids go right through it.”
Researchers say people of every age - especially children -
contribute to the food waste problem.
Gove said she has cut waste by starting with smaller meal
portions for her children, who get more only when they ask. Still, she says,
there is a limit to how far she’ll go.
“I definitely don’t want to get rid of my kids,” she said.