The Future of Food: The food waste problem and its potential

Food waste contributes to food insecurity, obesity and food-related illnesses. See how brands and retailers might reduce the scope of the problem.

July 24, 2023

5 Min Read
The future of food
Illustrations by Mar Bertran

New Hope Network encourages its community members to share open and transparent dialogue about issues that are impacting the food industry and its future. Please help us keep this conversation going. If you’re interested in sharing your opinions on the future of food, email Jessica Rubino at [email protected]. All opinions are welcome.

Food insecurity, food deserts, obesity, food-related illnesses—no matter where you look, it's clear that the United States and many other developed countries have a tricky relationship with food. Take food insecurity, for example: 100% of U.S. counties suffer food insecurity to some degree, according to Feeding America, a national hunger-relief organization. In contrast, billions of pounds of food are going to waste every year.

On paper—or on a screen—it seems obvious that the two should cancel each other out. In reality, dealing with food waste is more complex. Here, we take a closer look at the problem, potential solutions and the role of the food industry in this scenario.

Understanding the problem

It is hard to overstate the issue of food waste. Globally, approximately 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste every year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reported in 2011. If this figure is too hard to imagine, let's look closer to home. The United States wastes more food than any other country in the world, an average of 40 million tons per year. That number equals about 30%-40% of the entire food supply in the country.

Related:The Future of Food: The industry requires more sustainable packaging

Think about these numbers in terms of your weekly shop. Imagine you spend $100 at the grocery store every week. How does it make you feel to think that between $30 and $40 of that goes to waste? Over the course of the month, you may be wasting more than $150. That's nearly $2,000 a year out of your wallet.

In addition, food has become the largest single contributor to landfills, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service has found. But the waste doesn't end when unwanted food piles up. The problem stretches further, wasting resources such as the water, labor and energy required to produce that food. Additionally, the ethical implications cannot be overlooked, as the food could have been redistributed to nourish families grappling with the harsh realities of food poverty.

Nicolle Portilla, marketing manager for Recycle Track Systems and Zero Waste

Environmental effects

The environmental consequences of food waste are far-reaching and demand urgent attention. One major consequence is soil degradation. When organic waste is sent to landfill sites, it decomposes anaerobically. This process releases the potent greenhouse gas methane. Methane not only contributes to climate change but also poses a risk to soil health, degrading its quality and fertility.

Additionally, the production and disposal of wasted food result in significant greenhouse gas emissions. The resources—such as water, energy and fertilizers—consumed in the production, transportation and processing of food are wasted when food ends up in landfills. This waste intensifies the carbon footprint associated with food production, exacerbating the challenges of climate change.

Furthermore, food waste increases pressure on waste disposal systems. As more food is discarded, landfills become overwhelmed, leading to environmental hazards and the need to use more land to accommodate the increasing amount of waste. To mitigate these consequences, it is crucial to implement effective strategies to reduce food waste, promote sustainable agriculture practices and improve waste management systems.

Innovative solutions

So, how can consumers and the food industry tackle the issue? These three strategies are promising:

Reduce overbuying. Who doesn't love a buy-one-get-one-free offer? Consumers feel like they're getting a deal, food retailers shift more of their stock, and food producers enjoy increased sales. The problem, however, is that not all food items last long enough for consumers to use the entire amount they purchased. Limiting these offers to products that last can help reduce waste.

Educate consumers. For decades, consumers have been discouraged from using food products after their sell-by or expiration dates. Today, retailers and manufacturers are starting to change their approach.

For a food company, adding an expiration date protects the brand from potential safety and quality concerns. That said, no coherent regulations specify what constitutes safe or unsafe food. Instead, brands and retailers can choose to follow a combination of state laws, general guidelines and best practices. For consumers, the situation is confusing at best. Educating shoppers about the limitations of these dates and the fact that many foods are perfectly palatable after their expiration date is another way of limiting waste. It's equally important to share information on preserving food at home and helping it taste great longer. 

Encourage shopping for fresh, local products. Perhaps it is time to rethink the idea of doing one large weekly shop for groceries. Stores can encourage to make more frequent trips by offering different incentives on different days of the week, giving consumers reasons to return more frequently.

Combining this approach with a commitment to highlighting locally produced items supports businesses in a consumer's local area as well as allowing shoppers to take advantage of potential discounts on foods that need to be eaten within a few days. Some stores have gone as far as introducing reduced-price 'still fresh' categories to encourage shoppers to look past sell-by dates.

Moreover, locally grown fruits and vegetables generally are harvested when they are ripe rather than being artificially matured. They are not subject to thousands of food miles, therefore helping stores and their supplier reduce their carbon footprint. Plus, purchasing local produce supports the regional economy, too.

Benefits of reducing food waste

Reducing food waste has advantages for our entire society. Individuals will find that they have more money in their pockets. Brands and retailers can make a positive impact by discouraging overbuying, therefore limiting waste. They can also take things further and turn waste into value by converting it into energy.

In an ideal world, there would be no food waste. However, even with dynamic pricing techniques and a reduction in multi-purchase incentives, some food will continue to go to waste. By encouraging brands, retailers and other stakeholders to collaborate and develop truly innovative solutions, we can work together toward a circular food economy where almost nothing goes to waste.

Nicolle Portilla, marketing manager for Recycle Track Systems and Zero Waste, works to educate clients and industry players about technology and other resources available to achieve sustainability goals. She has a bachelor's degree in sustainability studies from Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York.

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