A certain formula exists when it comes to reporting on issues of food waste. It often starts with a shocking statistic: A third of the food we produce worldwide ends up in landfills. If the audience is American and the author is feeling particularly provocative and would like to hit closer to home, they might bump the figure up to 42 percent — the North American average.
Following the initial shocker comes the second part of the one-two punch: Despite the inordinate amount of food we are wasting, 1 billion people on our planet remain hungry or one in seven Americans face food insecurity — take your pick.
This formula appears all across the spectrum of media in reports by the National Resource Defence Council and in opinion pieces featured in U.S. News, and even slipped into speeches uttered by World Bank’s president Jim Yong Kim.
Despite an implied relationship between food waste and food insecurity, readers are never clued in on the mechanisms by which 1 billion hungry people might gain food security if consumers reconsidered throwing out slimy lettuce. The truth is that despite good intentions, reports that implicitly link food security to food waste mislead readers into believing that reducing waste will lead to fewer hungry stomachs, when in fact there is barely any relationship between the two at all. The reinforcement of this false belief detracts from the harsher realities of food insecurity and how it develops.
That’s not to say that cutting down on food waste isn’t a good idea. The amount of food waste that occurs in the United States accounts for a massive portion of wasted resources used to grow, harvest and transport those crops. Reports estimate that the United States uses 25 percent of its fresh water and 300 million barrels of oil per year to produce uneaten crops.
Decomposing food in landfills contributes 34 percent of the human-made emissions of Methane — a greenhouse gas that has 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. But all of this has very little to do with food insecurity. There is no lack of food. Inclusive of food waste, we produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. The simple truth is that those who are food insecure remain so simply because they cannot afford to buy the food that is already available. Even if food waste fell from 42 percent to 0 percent overnight, Americans who are food insecure will remain so because prices on the consumer end of the supply chain are kept artificially insensitive. When food waste and food insecurity are incorrectly linked together, it redirects focus away from the actual reasons why people can’t afford to feed themselves: a mixture of low wages and benefits with added
stressors such as high rent and unemployment.
All of this is assuming that wasted food accumulated from production, processing, retail, industry and consumers could be efficiently redirected toward specific people in the first place. While food banks do make an effort to collect donations and overflow from farms, they have trouble collecting enough support to scale up and serve their entire potential population base. Structural issues inherent with how the U.S. food supply chain operates, as well as the unavoidable perishability of food, creates particular difficulties in redistributing food waste. With the average food item traveling 1,200 miles to get to consumers, food is simply grown too far away from too many people. Rerouting wasted food would require labor to pick and pack produce, fleets of refrigerated trucks and the logistical support team to coordinate what to pick up, what to drop off and how much of both. All of this would have to be done at a moment’s notice, before tomatoes get too mushy and bananas get too spotty.
To add insult to injury, some initiatives championing the supposed “relationship” between food waste and food insecurity might even be making it more difficult for hungry people to access enough food. While the movement to eat “ugly” produce could lead toward a future public acceptance of them in our mainstream diets, in the short term, we see companies in the ugly fruit and vegetable business purchasing on scales so large that they compete with and outbid food processing companies and food banks—buyers that traditionally purchase at the utility grades.
As the new generation of conscious consumers, we carry reusable shopping bags and commend our neighbors for letting their lawns shrink and brown. We vaguely know that avocados are bad for the environment — but just taste so good on toast. The topic of food waste has steadily gained traction over the last few years. But while pleas to reduce waste will undeniably conserve resources, it will do little to increase food security as so frequently advertised. It is on the consumers and the media to recognize the difference between food waste and food insecurity so that we can begin to address solutions the way that we should have been doing all along — separately.
Victoria Jing is a conservation and resource studies student at UC Berkeley.