American retailers and consumers waste one-third of all foodstuffs

Here’s a shocking statistic: According to a recent report in the Guardian, new research suggests American retailers and consumers waste one-third of all foodstuffs. In total this represents around $160 billion of perfectly edible produce that’s thrown away annually due to what the report labels a “cult of perfection.”

A common assertion is that this problem is a result of supply chain issues. While it’s true some produce goes bad somewhere in between the fields, warehouses and supermarket fridges, this by no means accounts for the exorbitant disparity that exists.

The Guardian’s U.S. environmental correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg interviewed over two dozen “farmers, packers, wholesalers, truckers, food academics and campaigners” to find out what exactly is going wrong. Goldenberg found that much of the produce is wasted due to “cosmetic standards.” In other words, perfectly fresh food is being discarded because it doesn’t look good.

Jay Johnson, a fresh fruit and vegetable supplier to North Carolina and central Florida explained to Goldenberg, “it is either perfect, or it gets rejected.” As a result, many farmers preemptively get rid of much of their produce to save on wasted transport costs.

Potato farmer Wayde Kirschenman from Bakersfield, Calif. confirmed as much in his interview with Goldenberg. “I would say at times there is 25 percent of the crop that is just thrown away or fed to cattle. Sometimes it can be worse.”

So why exactly is this happening?

According to Goldenberg, researchers still don’t have an exact reason. She notes that the World Resources Institute think tank is working toward an answer. Which is good, as the need to find answers is pressing. As Goldenberg notes:

“Food experts say there is growing awareness that governments cannot effectively fight hunger, or climate change, without reducing food waste. Food waste accounts for about 8 percent of global climate pollution, more than India or Russia.”

As for America, the EPA has found that discarded food is the biggest single component of landfills and incinerators in the country. As a result these landfills produce massive amounts of methane, which proves far more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide.

Roger Gordon is founder of the startup Food Cowboy, which aims to address issues around food waste in America. According to Gordon, much of the problem around produce waste comes down to the issue of supermarket profit.

“If you and I reduced fresh produce waste by 50 percent like [U.S. agriculture secretary] Vilsack wants us to do, then supermarkets would go from [a] 1.5 percent profit margin to 0.7 percent,” Gordon told Goldenberg. “And if we were to lose 50 percent of consumer waste, then we would lose about $250 billion in economic activity that would go away.”

So this is an issue of creating scarcity? Bizarrely, as Goldenberg continued, this may well be the case.

The farmers and truckers interviewed said they had seen their produce rejected on flimsy grounds, but decided against challenging the ruling with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dispute mechanism for fear of being boycotted by powerful supermarket giants. They also asked that their names not be used.

In other words, rather than the consumers, it’s the large supermarkets that are dictating the impossible standards that get implemented on the supply chain. As for the legal issues surrounding this dubious practice, one unnamed owner of an East Coast trucking company told Goldenberg that even if farmers want to challenge a supermarket they have very little recourse.

“There is nothing you can do,” said the owner, “because if you use the PACA [Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act of 1930] on them, they are never going to buy from you again. Are you going to jeopardize $5 million in sales over an $8,000 load?”

As a result of this practice by the powerful retailers, the issues carry down the ladder of the supply chain to the farmer. In the end a feedback loop is created where the consumers only want to consume what they’re told they should accept as the standard. And in the process, almost half of all edible produce being farmed in the country is going uneaten.

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