As they sit down to their Thanksgiving Day dinner next Thursday, many Americans will marvel at the cornucopia of food at their table. What many don't think about is how much food is wasted, not just on Thursday, but every day, from the beginning of the harvest to the scraps tossed into the garbage. Mounting new evidence, in fact, shows just how wasteful the nation is with its bounty.
America has been long been the poster child for the "throw-away society" and researchers have known for years about the volumes of food Americans toss into the trash. Only recently, though, has that been quantified as a percentage of what is produced. A new study from the University of Arizona in Tucson indicates that 40 to 50 percent of all food ready for harvest never gets eaten.
Timothy W. Jones, an anthropologist at the UA Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, has spent the last 10 years measuring food loss, including the last eight under a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Jones started in the farms and orchards, went on through the warehouses, retail outlets and dining rooms, and to landfills.
What he found was that not only is edible food discarded that could feed people who need it, but the rate of loss, even partially corrected, could save U.S. consumers and corporations tens of billions of dollars each year. Jones says these losses also can be framed in terms of environmental degradation and national security.
Jones' research evolved from and builds on earlier work done at the University of Arizona. Archaeologists there began measuring garbage in the 1970s to see what was being thrown away and discovered that people were not fully aware of what they were using and discarding. Those earlier studies evolved into more sophisticated research using contemporary archaeology and ethnography to understand not only the path food travels from farms and orchards to landfills, but also the culture and psychology behind the process.
A certain amount of waste in the food stream simply can't be helped. Little can be done, for instance, about weather and crop deterioration. The apple industry, for instance, loses on average about 12 percent of its crop on the way to market.
Apples in the U.S. are harvested over a two-month period and then stored and sold year-round. People in the apple business use aggressive methods to maintain their crop, with fresh apples hitting the supermarkets on a regular basis and marginal ones sent to be made into applesauce and other products.
The goal of apple growers is to provide a nutritious product, all year long, at fairly constant prices. Jones says they've adopted a conservative business plan that forgoes the boom-and-bust cycles that other fruit and vegetable growers aim for and opts instead for a steady income stream.
Fresh fruit and vegetable growers, in contrast, often behave like riverboat gamblers. They will roam their fields while on their cell phones to the commodity markets in Chicago, play the odds and even dance a jig or flip a coin if they think it will help them make a financial killing. A bad bet often means an entire crop is left in the field to be plowed under.
Jones' research also shows that by measuring how much food is actually being brought into households, a clearer picture of that end of the food stream is beginning to emerge.
On average, households waste 14 percent of their food purchases. Fifteen percent of that includes products still within their expiration date but never opened. Jones estimates an average family of four currently tosses out $590 per year, just in meat, fruits, vegetables and grain products.
Jones says there are three simple ways most people can significantly reduce their own food waste. One is careful purchase planning: devise menus and make up grocery lists accordingly.
Another is knowing what lurks in the refrigerator and pantry that needs to be used while it is still useable.
And understand that many kinds of food can be refrigerated or frozen and eaten later.
Nationwide, he says, household food waste alone adds up to $43 billion, making it a serious economic problem. (In addition to farms and households, Jones also is currently researching retail food waste, again a sector where annual losses run in the tens of billions of dollars.)
Cutting food waste would also go a long way toward reducing serious environmental problems. Jones estimates that reducing food waste by half could reduce adverse environmental impacts by 25 percent through reduced landfill use, soil depletion and applications of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
Timothy W. Jones, Ph.D.
UA Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology