A Decade of Waste: A Modern Journey of Keeping Food out of the Trash
That topic was food waste and that TED Talk, The Global Food Waste Scandal by a man named Tristram Stuart. Tristram was and is many things. An author, a researcher, a food lover and a visionary. I cannot do that speech justice in written words, but he walked through how his love of food and passion for the planet had brought him to try to understand how so much good food could go to waste. He described how large quantities of perfectly edible end pieces of bread were thrown away because people just didn’t like them and how if we began to feed our food scraps to pigs it could reduce emissions beyond the current best practices in the developed world. He also mentioned the lack of data on the subject and how he had to use his own intuition and research to put together formulas to map out the amount of food waste that was taking place. This was the first time I’d ever considered something so simple as throwing my food away to be so complex and detailed in so many ways. My millennial brain was on the verge of detonating before I realized that this truly was something that had both kept me up at night and also got me out of bed in the morning. Food waste was a problem much bigger than its recognition would suggest.
“The Food Waste Scandal”. TEDSalon London Spring 2012 .May 2012.
Upon starting college at UCLA in 2013, I really began to see the issue evolve. During my first year of undergrad, I wrote a research paper on food waste and was only able to find two books on the topic to be counted as credible references. By the end of my senior year of college in 2017, food waste was one of the most recognized issues on the planet. Much has happened since then. So while food loss and food waste are issues that date back to as long as we’ve been able to cultivate food, this piece will be an attempt to walk you through the timeline of how I saw a simple online video blossom into a global movement that has taken the world by storm.
Eytan, Ted. “Over the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA USA 0039”.2018, via Wikimedia Commons
The Green Revolution, the first food bank, refrigerated transport and a host of other crowning achievements in the history of humanity and food could all be considered part of the food waste story, but this one starts in 2009 because that’s when the first of those two books I mentioned earlier was published. That book is titled, Waste: Uncovering the Global Waste Scandal. And it was written by none other than Tristram Stuart. 2010 was a seminal year for food waste because that was the year the second book, Jonathan Bloom’s American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)Jonathan Bloom. was published. Both of these books included research into currently available data, interviews with industry leaders and first hand exploration into the food industry, laying ground to build an understanding as to why so much food was going to waste and started to quantify it. As a college student who did not want to read anymore than was necessary, these books were gripping. They highlighted the extent of food waste in America, the U.K. and throughout the world and framed it in such a way that the topic was quite visceral. The first sentence in American Wasteland reads; “Every day, America wastes enough food to fill the Rose Bowl.” All of a sudden, the home stadium to my alma mater became my barometer for food waste in America. We couldn’t even fill the entire stadium with enough people some Saturdays during football season, but every day the U.S. was throwing away enough food to pack it to the brim. Unbelievable. What both of these books did so well was that they clearly explained the degree to which food waste was hurting the world, but also showed how accessible solutions were. Creative concepts such as feeding waste to pigs, as highlighted by Tristram, allowed for reduction of emissions beyond even the current best practices in the U.K. These publications set the precedent for future works on the topic and helped to build a movement that has snowballed since.
2011 is the year that the FAO published the statistic that one third of all food produced was lost or wasted. This number was so drastic that if food waste were a country at the time, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world behind China and the U.S. These statistics were both staggering and bordering on preposterous. This report came from a formal research study from one of the most reputable organizations related to food. Adding an additional degree of credibility to the issue in the scheme of our food system, it became a prominent benchmark for the proportion of food produced that was not getting consumed throughout the entire world. This study went on to kick start the desire for more research to build on the foundation that this one had laid.
This was also the first year that a student led collective called the Food Recovery Network was started at the University of Maryland. After seeing how much food was wasted in dining halls, students began to find avenues to donate the excess meals to nonprofits serving the hungry in the Washington D.C. area. They would continue to grow and open more chapters at other schools over the next few years before eventually becoming a formal non-profit business. In just a few short years food waste had grown from a lesser known problem to a tangible challenge for international researchers and students alike.
2012 was the year that The Food Waste Scandal TED Talk was released, but it was also another landmark year in terms of publications related to food waste. This was the year that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shared an issue paper called, Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. The author, Dana Gunders, is another stalwart in this journey. This report was extremely important because it really broke down the American-specific details of how food was being lost at each level of the supply chain. It combined all aspects of the issue including resource efficiency, energy usage, economic burden, environmental impact and the psychology of food quality perception. It also held the U.S. accountable, mentioning that for a country that was becoming adamant about sustainable food production, it would be rendered useless if the produced food wasn’t consumed in the end. Released one year after the FAO study, this showed that a staggering one third of all food was being squandered globally and the U.S. had found a way to waste even more.
Dana Gunders, Tristram Stuart and Jonathan Bloom all compounded the point that this was beyond an issue of financial wherewithal or technological advancement. Developed nations like the U.S. and U.K. were wasting copious amounts of food. The issue was, clearly, much bigger than having the capacity to feed people. It had become abundantly clear at this point that while some nations of the world were still struggling to produce enough food to feed everyone properly, those who were able to do so were wasting food based on reasons like supply chain inefficiencies, consumer behaviors, disproportionate fiscal incentives and overall lack of awareness.
By 2013 food waste was starting to gain traction as a more intricate issue of this generation. This was the year that the Food Loss and Waste (FLW) Protocol was founded following the recommendation for doing so in a WRI white paper, Reducing Food Loss and Waste. The FLW Protocol is a multistakeholder partnership that was created to develop an accounting and reporting standard that could be used by everyone – from industry to government to agricultural producers (see additional details later in this timeline). The stakeholders who worked together providing input into development of this standard included government agencies, NGOs, academic institutions and private corporations from around the world. The FLW Protocol continues to tackle issues within food waste, providing, for example, guidance on how to overcome resistance to measurement, or working with partners to develop a calculator that converts the weight of FLW into nutritional and environmental impacts.
This was also the year that FoodTank was created. FoodTank was founded as a nonprofit and built on the premise that solutions for a more sustainable, healthy and equitable food system deserve to be shared. While not centered on it, food waste has been a foundational pillar of the work that they do. They have been very much a mainstay in the national and global movement to combat food waste.
This marks the year that education on food waste seemed to be more widespread and market based solutions began to pop up. You may know them from the popular TV show, Shark Tank, but before that platform, Hungry Harvest was founded by Evan Lutz, a student at the University of Maryland. When learning about how much good food was going to waste just because it looked weird, he decided to purchase unsold items from farmers and marketed them directly to students on campus at a discount. Pretty soon his business grew and turned into a delivery service where you received a weekly box of unwanted produce and ensured a meal was donated to people in need of food. This was the year that the tragedy of cosmetically undesirable foods going uneaten had begun to evolve into a niche market solution.
The following year, another startup with a similar concept to Hungry Harvest popped up on the west coast. At the time, they were known as Imperfect Produce, but have since changed their name to Imperfect Foods. They also work directly with farmers and other food producers to purchase and then resell their excess items as well.
2015 was a pivotal year for not just food waste, but the sustainability community at large. This was the year that the UN released their Sustainable Development Goals. Goal 12 was “Responsible Consumption and Production”. Target 12.3 of this goal, to “halve per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reduce food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses”. In just a few short years, I went from seeing food waste as the biggest unknown problem in the world to watching it become a target for one of the most admired and tenacious blueprints for a sustainable future. This target would lead to the inception of Champions 12.3, who were a global group of leaders from influential stakeholders with an impact on the food value chain, who would commit to champion the target en-route to the year 2030.
This was also the year when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called for their own goal to reduce food loss and waste in half by 2030 in America. Understanding that this commitment would require efforts beyond the government, they created the U.S. Food Loss and Waste Champions 2030, which was a collective of businesses and organizations who had pledged and committed to reduce their food loss and waste in half while abiding to the same timeline. The champions today include major companies such as Amazon, General Mills, Kroger, MGM Resorts, Pepsico and Walmart among many others who have become leaders in reducing food waste.
This was also the founding year for ReFED. ReFED is a nonprofit that was created to use data driven approaches to resolve food waste in the U.S. They are multi-stakeholder driven and publish some of the most detailed metrics about food waste that are available to this day.
In the year following their inception, ReFED released the The Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent. The first of its kind, it broke down solutions to reduce food waste at every level of the U.S. food supply chain and the projected economic benefit that they would provide. This report was goal oriented, highlighting that there were vastly more opportunities for solutions than justifications for waste to continue occurring. This piece and ReFED’s continued work on the subject are some of the most in depth data sources on the subject to date.
2016 was also the year that the FLW Protocol published the Food Loss and Waste Accounting and Reporting Standard (FLW Standard, for short). This piece has proven extremely important because it represents a layout for which any group can begin to record their food loss and waste. It provides guidance on how to define goals, describe the scope of a FLW inventory, quantify the amount, analyze results, and report the findings. A companion document provides guidance on how to use 10 of the most common methods for quantifying the amount of food lost or wasted. The FLW Standard has highlighted the critical importance of using a common language, which was used in 2017 as the foundation for clarifying the definition of Target SDG 12.3, providing a guiding beacon for proper food loss and waste management across all entities.
With food waste becoming a prominent global issue over the past 5 years, Dana Gunders and Jonathan Bloom teamed up to work on the second edition of Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. Much like the first edition, this report has really served as one of the most comprehensive evaluations of the U.S. food system. It highlights the specific areas of waste, why they’re occurring and also what has begun to be implemented to reduce it. Everything from calories lost, to freshwater wasted and greenhouse gas emissions released were assessed. The report quantified and explained the issue in detail that was often unseen in many other areas of science, but still gave off an aura of encouragement.
2017 was also a big year for my own involvement with food waste. As I watched it erupt around the food community of the world I also saw it grow on my own campus. I was part of the first graduating class of students to declare the newly founded Food Studies minor at UCLA and it seemed the intersection of food and the environment was beginning to become much more reputable in the environmental science community that my major was in. I got to lead a research team of my own for UCLA Housing and Hospitality to better understand why students were wasting food on campus. I developed a unique plate waste study that allowed us to compare demographic trends among diners and relate them back to their levels of waste. My school began to grow food on campus and had made food waste from all events a major point of emphasis on how the university would need to conduct itself in the coming years. In just four years time, I went from struggling to find more than two print sources on food waste to collecting first hand data to combat it on campus.
While this year is the portion of this timeline that is being recognized for this achievement, it is important to mention that food waste is something that the restaurant industry has long sought to address. Some of these achievements took place that the rest of us never even knew about until they were featured so eloquently in Wasted! The Story of Food Waste. This was a film from a food community legend himself, Anthony Bourdain. Aside from Tristram Stuart’s expertise, the movie also featured the likes of world class chefs such as Mario Batali, Dan Barber and Massimo Bottura. They walked through the evolution that the restaurant industry had gone through by mentioning items like bone marrow, a once discarded food scrap that is now only served at the upper echelon of fine dining. They also peeled back the curtains on Chilean Sea Bass. Known by its actual name, the Patagonian Toothfish, once a so-called “trash fish” or bycatch, was thrown away by most fishermen who caught it in their nets in search of other species. Since having been approved for a more appetizing name change for marketing purposes, it is now a popular menu item throughout the world. The further you go back, the more you could unearth, but the reality is that we live in a world where food should be celebrated and explored, not rejected for fear of perception.
This was the year of the most recent Farm Bill in the U.S. I mark this as important because it is an example of how all-encompassing of an issue food waste is. As someone who took interest in the subject due to its proximity to environmental sustainability, it’s inclusion and relationship to other aspects of food is something that I, myself, have come to only understand better over the course of the latter years in this timeline. That said, when president Donald Trump signed this into law in 2018, that became the first year that food waste was mentioned explicitly as a problem in the Farm Bill. This piece of legislature included everything from creating a defined role within the USDA to address food waste, to providing funding to create composting programs, to increased efforts to improve food donations and further protection from liability when donating food items. While climate change, dietary choices, nutrition and food ethics are all topics that seem to have less than a consensus for best practices, food waste has proven to be much less polarizing. You would be hard pressed to find anyone on this planet who believes good food is better off in the trash than it is in a stomach.
In hindsight, 2019 feels a bit like the calm before the storm. For me, I saw this as a year of convergence within food waste. You may have noticed that I have mentioned both food loss and food waste throughout this article. The delineation can still sometimes be murky, but 2019 was the first year that I began to notice a common set of definitions be adopted across many of the thought leaders’ websites. Food loss, representing losses that occur during harvest and slaughter and through processing; and food waste, occuring at the retail and consumption stages of the food value chain. The FAO and UN Environment Programme are currently still updating their statistical indicators of global food losses and food waste around the world as separate metrics and initiatives are forming to focus solutions for each of them separately. This was also the year that the UN General Assembly designated September 29th as the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste.
The World Resources Institute also released a report in 2019 titled, Reducing Food Loss and Waste: Setting a Global Action Agenda, that outlined both the steps that should be taken to reduce food loss and waste globally, and the potential benefits that it would have towards global sustainability. While it’s hard to say for certain, I viewed 2019 as a year where the world seemed to come together in an effort to stop food waste and the implementation of large scale plans seemed on the cusp of fruition. Little did I know, the entire food industry would be flipped upside down within a few short months.
I’m not sure this year needs much introduction. On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, to be a global pandemic. Shortly after, schools, hotels, restaurants, stores and businesses all began to shut down. Food that was once intended for conferences, cafeterias and dining establishments no longer had a home. What was just weeks ago a food waste-exacerbated country, had now become riddled with losses on farms as producers were forced to dispose of their products instead of letting them sit and spoil. The entire food value chain was in complete disarray.
You might be wondering why all of that food had to be destroyed if it was intended for consumption to begin with, wouldn’t people still need to eat? And that’s where the good news comes in. Across the U.S. different initiatives began to grow in response to this and sought to remove the bottleneck that had abruptly surfaced itself within the food value chain. The Farmlink project was a student led effort to redistribute the food that was being lost towards those in need and food banks across the country stepped up their efforts to reroute more food from purgatory to the people most in need of it. Large food companies not only donated large quantities of products, but some, such as Dairy Farmers of America, helped provide refrigerated storage to more rural areas so that they could increase their capacity of perishables to be stored and redistributed. While the ongoing pandemic has exposed many of the challenges related to resilience in the food value chain, it has also emphasized the importance of the connection that we all have with our food. Things are not perfect, but I have taken comfort in knowing that food loss and food waste still remain at the forefront of the challenges our country wants to address today.
I probably know the first thing that you’re thinking right now. And you’re right, this article is called a decade of waste and I included more than ten years. You may have forgotten the part about me being a millennial, so of course I hyperbolized the title to my liking. In all seriousness, food waste has been a guiding issue for me throughout the past decade-ish. It’s the reason I committed to studying environmental science and also what forced me to better understand our food system, people and the world. I have been able to watch it grow from an issue into a global movement. Food waste and waste in general will never be fully eliminated, but much like our health it’s a perpetual quest for improvement. And the solution starts at home, with us.
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