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No more time to waste: Emergent efforts to fight food waste

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 March Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

It’s become a notorious fact: 40% of all food grown in the Unites States goes to waste. That’s more than 1 in 4 calories going straight into the dumpster. The thought of so much wholesome, delicious food being wasted is already heavy with pathos, but what is truly heart breaking is the amount of work and resources wasted in the process. A full quarter of our country's fresh water is used to grow this wasted food. 350 million barrels of oil are burned in vain. We can estimate that 250 million pounds of pesticides are sprayed on squandered crops. The level of wasted human work this implies is even more staggering: each year, at least 8 billion person-hours are spent planting, tending, and harvesting unconsumed crops.

Most of this wasted food ends up in the landfill, where it commences to create yet more waste, in the form of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 16% of all methane emissions are released from the anaerobic bacterial action induced by organic landfill waste. Also to consider is the loss of all the nutrients: carbon, phosphorous, nitrogen, and trace minerals that could have been cycled back as compost, biochar, or pelletized fertilizer instead ends up as a pollutant in groundwater or the watershed.

Our culture has not always been so excessive. There was even a time when our government advertently called upon its citizens to polish their plates. During World War II, the Office of War Information published posters that called upon people to “buy wisely, cook carefully, eat it all” and to “Be patriotic...Sign a pledge to save the food.” Even as recently as 1974, the average American wasted just half the amount of food as someone in 2017.

Part of the shift in our (un)consumption habits has to do with the “green revolution” of the 1970’s that gave farmers access to cheap fertilizer and pesticides, thus increasing the productivity of the average farm acre. With the price of food decreasing as a result, there was less incentive to be thrifty. Farmers cared less if a few tons of cheap food were left unpicked because labor costs couldn’t justify the expense any longer.

With an influx of pesticides, ripening agents, rapid refrigeration, and other agri-technology, the standard of what is “blemished” or “wholesome” has also created vast amounts of waste. In just this one example documenting a parsnip packing facility in the U.K., you can see a literal hill of wasted parsnips being thrown away simply because their shape would not meet the retailer’s expectations of ideal parsnip-ness.

Whether we like it or not, the growing pressures of climate change, landfill shortages, and peak oil will demand a return to a culture of frugality and pride in zero waste. That will mean changing policy and culture at every level of the food chain: farms, wholesalers, retailers, and the homestead. Already, there are a number of efforts underway within government offices, the State House, and from businesses and nonprofits to curb the flow of wasted food, and to ensure that excess food is diverted from the landfill and into the compost heap. We are already two years into the statewide Massachusetts commercial food waste ban, which has forced institutions and other entities that produce more than one ton of organic waste per week to more sustainably deal with their waste. More anaerobic digesters and commercial compost operations have sprouted as a result. Non-profits like Boston Area Gleaners have sprouted up to harvest excess crops from fields and bring them to the pantries that need them.

Still, there’s a tremendous amount of work to do. On the policy end, that means standardizing and clarifying the rules around food donations. It also means incentivizing farmers and wholesalers to donate rather than chuck their food. Let’s take a look at some notable policy proposals in Massachusetts that can address these lingering problems:

Building Incentives for Farmers

Given the nature of farming, it is inevitable that there will be times when farmers have surplus crops that just aren’t going to sell. Whether it’s a bumper crop, seconds, or lack of farm labor, farmers often find themselves composting or tilling in thousands of pounds of perfectly delectable and nutritious crops.

Most farmers would be thrilled to see all of the food which they have worked so hard to grow end up in someone’s mouth, but the reality is that during the growing season, farmers rarely have the time to harvest or deliver these excess crops. There’s just not enough economic incentive to do so; in fact, it results in an economic loss because of the labor cost involved. By creating financial incentives to donate the surplus, farmers will be much more likely to create systems for waste reduction.

One effort to fix this problem is a bill (HD3122) proposed by Representative Schmid (D-Westport) that would create a tax credit for farmers who donate their excess crops to a non-profit shelter or pantry. Farmers would be able to write off 25% of the value of any donated crops. Given that most medium-sized farms are losing thousands of dollars to the compost heap, this incentive would go a long way toward motivating farmers to find a human home for their product.

Minimizing Liability for Donors

It seems obvious that those who want to donate their business’s excess food should be encouraged to do so. But many businesses are afraid that they will be held liable should there be a food-borne illness. Part of that fear can be fixed simply through education about the Good Samaritan Law, which provides liability protections to any business that donates food to a non-profit in good faith.

But there still remains a need to extend those protections. As of now, prepared foods, such as those found in a restaurant or a supermarket buffet, are banned from donation in many towns. Several proposals would fix that problem. Bill HD1422 from Rep. McMurtry (D-Dedham) would allow stores, restaurants and cafeterias to donate any leftover cooked food to pantries while also getting a tax credit or deduction for doing so. Another proposal from Senator Donaghue (SD1043) would extend the protections of the Good Samaritan Law to individuals, so that a business wouldn’t be limited to giving away their food to just non-profits.

Creating a Common Language

If you inspect any food label, you’ll notice that somewhere on there will be an expiration date. It might say “Best before”, “Sell by”, “Use before” or some other similar iteration of the same. The problem is that each company has its own way of labeling their products. It’s hard to know if they’re referring to when it should be taken off the grocery shelves, or when it is no longer fit for consumption. Hence, retail stores dump millions of pounds of perfectly good food simply because it has passed an arbitrary date that has little to do with actual food safety.

There are efforts to fix this problem in D.C., but while we wait for that (and who knows how long that will take) Massachusetts policymakers could lead by example. There’s an effort (SD.1041) led by Senator Donaghue to pass a bill that would standardize the system by creating two distinct categories: “quality dates” and “expiration dates”. Quality dates would indicate when the quality of the food is likely to begin declining (but still safe to eat), while the expiration date would signify when it’s no longer safe to consume that food. After a food passes its “quality date”, it can still be sold or donated. The only foods that would have to be taken off the shelves are those that have passed a clearly defined safety threshold.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done on this front. Optimistically, it seems that addressing food waste is an issue that goes beyond partisan politics. Indeed, what can be more conservative than reducing waste, conserving resources, and working smarter? What can be more progressive than feeding those in need nutritious, wholesome foods while reducing greenhouse pollution? Is it possible that in our hyper-polarized world, reducing food waste can bridge the divide?


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