The ubiquity of food in the United States blinds the mind to a tragic fact: much of it is wasted. Exact numbers are elusive, but estimates suggest that at least a quarter and as much as half of the food produced in this country is never consumed. A panel of food experts convened by Climate One on Monday, March 7 said that much of the waste is unnecessary.
Lest consumers think most of the waste ends up in supermarket or restaurant trash bins, Jonathan Bloom, author, American Wasteland, cited a study from New York State, which found that households account for 40% of wasted food. There is a "squeamishness factor" at work on consumers, he said, where even a slight blemish dooms an apple to the bin.
"In terms of the American consumer's psyche, we've gotten to this point where we see beautiful food everywhere – the rise of food TV and glossy magazines – everywhere we turn, it seems, we"re constantly seeing images of food that looks pretty. Appearance trumps taste," he said. "There are dramatic effects throughout the food chain where there is this culling process from farm to fork."
"We have tremendous inefficiencies on both sides, pre-harvest and post harvest," said A.G. Kawamura, former Secretary, California Department of Food and Agriculture and farm owner. If prices collapse, he said, a farmer might not be able to afford to pay for the fuel and labor needed to harvest a crop. He cited a recent example on his own farm. Depressed prices forced him to plow under a crop of celery because he couldn’t profitably bring it to market. Fortunately, he said, groups such Farm to Table are partnering with farmers to offset the cost of a second or third harvest to prevent food from wasting in the field.
For Michael Dimock, President, Roots of Change, the primary driver of waste in the food system is how we think. "The fact that we even conceptualize that there is waste in the food system is the beginning of it, because all of the food within in the chain is organic material that has value somewhere else in the chain. It's really changing our consciousness about what is waste and what is not. That's the first step in combating this problem," he said.
There are reasons to be optimistic that the system is evolving, he said, citing the food separation and composting efforts underway in San Francisco and Sonoma County. Also encouraging, he said, is the increased interest in food sovereignty." Everything from families and communities planting and tending gardens to consumers "mining" trash bins at supermarkets and restaurants for green waste to feed to backyard chickens. I'm thankful that we have a system of abundance,” said A.G. Kawamura. "Can we make it a system of efficiency? We're lucky we don't have a system of scarcity."
-- Justin Gerdes
Photo: Ed Ritger
Climate One, Commonwealth Club HQ, San Francisco (March 7, 2011)