How to Save the Planet, Reduce Hunger, and Generate $100 Billion by Reducing Food Waste

Today, a report was released that outlined a plan capable of creating 15,000 jobs, generating $100 billion in economic value, reducing domestic water use by 1.6 trillion gallons, diverting 18 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and providing 1.8 billion meals annually to help feed food-insecure Americans. The plan would save U.S. consumers $5.6 billion and generate nearly $2 billion in new business profits every year. Perhaps most remarkably, the plan is also supported by a broad diversity of stakeholders including businesses, government, advocates, and philanthropists.

The report, Roadmap to Reduce US Food Waste, was created with the objective of presenting a clear path toward most efficiently and effectively addressing the food waste dilemma. It was produced by ReFED, a collaboration of more than 30 business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing U.S. food waste.

The Food Waste Dilemma
The volume and the impacts of our food waste are staggering. In the U.S., we waste roughly 40% of all the food we produce, sending 52.4 million tons of it to landfills, and allowing another 10.1 million tons to remain unharvested on farms every year. This costs us some $218 billion annually.

Food waste is ultimately responsible for consuming 25 percent of the freshwater we use, 30 percent of our fertilizer, 31 percent of our cropland, and 21 percent of our landfill volume, while simultaneously generating 4.5 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions due to methane released during decomposition. Perhaps most disturbingly and infuriatingly, all this food is wasted while nearly 50 million Americans continue to struggle with food insecurity.

While it's mind boggling that a food waste problem of such magnitude persists in the U.S., there's been an encouraging increase in public interest in the issue, and ongoing development of new food waste reduction initiatives. In September 2015, the Obama Administration signaled its commitment to addressing the issue when the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency jointly announced a bold national goal of reducing food waste by 50 percent by 2030.

The one significant omission from the USDA-EPA announcement was a clear explanation of exactly how we should go about achieving this ambitious reduction target. It turned out that despite all the interest in the issue, no one had yet conducted a thorough analysis of all the potential reduction strategies in order to determine the most effective ways of solving the problem. ReFED created the Roadmap to eliminate this knowledge gap.

The Roadmap to Food Waste Reduction
Before producing the Roadmap, the ReFED team collaborated with experts and key stakeholders to determine where waste occurs in the food chain, to identify the most viable food waste reduction strategies and to carefully assess the relative feasibility, economic impact and waste reduction potential of each solution.

Ultimately, ReFED's analysis revealed excellent news: by taking several actions that are already both feasible and cost-effective, we can reduce U.S. food waste by 20 percent (13 million tons annually), putting the country on target to achieve its 50 percent reduction goal by 2030.

Key Roadmap Findings:
  • Roadmap solutions will be great for consumers - ReFED estimates that the solutions will allow consumers to save $5.6 billion due to lower food bills.
  • Businesses will also benefit - the solutions will generate nearly $2 billion in business profits, primarily for restaurants, institutions, and food service providers.
  • Recycling offers the greatest reduction potential - food waste recycling solutions like large-scale composting and anaerobic digestion have the potential to divert 9.5 million tons of food scraps from landfills every year, constituting almost 75 percent of the total reduction potential of Roadmap strategies.
  • Prevention solutions are the most cost effective - consumer education campaigns, packaging improvements, standardization of date labels, and other preventative solutions help maximize the amount of food put toward its most valuable use: feeding people.
  • Significant investment is needed - food waste reduction will generate $100 billion in economic benefits over the next ten years - but implementing these solutions isn't free; ReFED estimates a need for $18 billion of new investment, including $8 billion of government support, $7 billion of private investments, and $3 billion of philanthropic grants and impact investments.

Securing this investment, of course, is not an insignificant challenge. But given the costs of food waste and the now-quantified benefits of implementing solutions, it seems clear that we can no longer afford inaction.

Chris Hunt serves on ReFED's Advisory Council and is very optimistic about the future of food waste mitigation.