40 Percent of Food in America is Wasted

By Kim Smiley

A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that a shocking 40 percent of food in America is wasted.  This means that a huge amount of resources are being used to produce food that is never eaten.  Even worse, this food is left to rot in landfills, which produces the greenhouse gas methane.   Landfills are responsible for 34 percent of all methane emissions in thee United States.

This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual format for performing a root cause analysis.  The first step in Cause Mapping is to fill in an Outline with all the basic information and determine the goals that are impacted.  In this example, the environmental goal is impacted because of the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the production goal is impacted because $165 billion of food wasted in United States this year.  Once the impacts are determined, the Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and adding the answers until the cause-and-effect relationships between all the factors that contributed to an issue are clear.

Starting with the environmental goal, the next step is to ask “why” greenhouse gases are being produced.  Methane, a greenhouse gas, is being produced by the tons of food rotting in landfills.  Tons of food is in landfills because 40 percent of the food in the United States is wasted and that is generally where it ends up.  There is such a large amount of  food waste because there is waste at every step of the food chain and there is little motivation to stop wasting food.  There isn’t sufficient motivation to curb the waste because food is relatively cheap and plentiful in this country.  People are also unaware of the scope of the problem and don’t realize that rotting food is a significant environmental issue.

There are a number of reasons that food is wasted at the different steps in the food chain.  About seven percent of food in the United States never even leaves the field.  A number of things cause this, such as more crops being planted than needed to hedge against bad weather or disease, fluctuating food prices making the harvest prohibitively expensive, and produce that doesn’t meet the size and color standards.   There is a lot of waste post-harvest because edible food is culled that doesn’t always meet the high aesthetic standards of this country.  Grocery stores’ practices also result in a lot of wasted food because they overstock products so they don’t look empty and toss a lot of food that is near or at its sell by dates.  Food services and restaurants also contribute to food waste.  It’s estimated that seventeen percent of the food is left on plates by diners, partly because of the ever increasing portion sizes.  Finally, it’s worth note how much food is wasted in the average American household.  It’s estimated that families throw out between 14 and 25 percent of all food and beverages they purchase.

There will always be some waste associated with food production, but there are simple ways to improve.  Better meal planning, eating more leftovers, lower aesthetic standards for produce, and better understanding of sell by dates by consumers would all help.