Dear Government: Food Waste is a Matter of Urgency. Please Take It Seriously.

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This past January, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to reduce food waste by 50 percent by 2020 and designated 2014 as the “European year against food waste.”  Members of the European Parliament have called improving the efficiency of our food system and reducing food wastage “a matter of urgency,” stating that:

The most important problem in the future will be to tackle increased demand for food, as it will outstrip supply. We can no longer afford to stand idly by while perfectly edible food is being wasted. This is an ethical but also an economic and social problem, with huge implications for the environment.

Additionally, the United Kingdom government has helped conduct a public awareness campaign called Love Food Hate Waste that plastered London with fancy billboards encouraging people to waste less food. 

And what has the U.S. government done to tackle food waste? Close to nothing.

Okay, that’s not entirely true.  During World War II, the U.S. government had a massive campaign, with posters that still make for good kitchen decorations, to discourage wasted food in order to save food for the army.  One of my favorites is “When you take more than you can eat, you cheat your buddies in the fleet.” 

But since then, there hasn’t been a whole lot of action.  The EPA runs a laudable-for-its-meager-budget Food Recovery Challenge that provides recognition and shares best practices for businesses preventing and recovering food waste.  There’s also one team at USDA who, as only part of their responsibilities, collects some information about food losses at the retail and consumer levels of the supply chain.  Other than that, the government’s involvement is pretty barren.

Our neighbors across the pond show us we’ve got a lot of catching up to do in terms of prioritizing food waste reduction at a national level. It is due time for the U.S. government to act on the food waste crisis with real urgency and leadership as well. 

As discussed in NRDC’s recent report about improving the efficiency of the U.S. food system, about 40% of food in this country goes uneaten—a situation that is imposing staggering social, financial, and environmental costs.  Government, businesses, and individuals all have a key role to play in bringing that number down.  Next week, we’ll look at how businesses can turn this into opportunity. For the government’s part, here are a few recommendations on what could be more of a priority at the federal level.

Conduct a comprehensive study of food losses throughout the U.S. food system.

The adage “you manage what you measure” applies. Food loss has become such a huge problem partly because it is not being measured or studied, thus making it difficult to understand or evaluate progress. A comprehensive report on food losses throughout the U.S. food system is needed to characterize the problem, identify hot spots and opportunity areas, set baselines against which improvement can be measured, and provide more detailed and accurate data. A similar study, completed by the European Commission in 2010, was an important first step in establishing reduction goals.

Establish national goals.

Reducing food loss in the United States should be a national priority, starting with the establishment of clear and specific efficiency improvement targets as was done in Europe.

Address date labeling confusion. As explained on a previous blog, dates on food products do not indicate food safety, yet many consumers believe that they do and discard food accordingly. The United Kingdom recently set guidelines to standardize date labeling on foods, after research there suggested clarifying its meaning to the public could reduce household food losses by as much as 20 percent. And, the European Commission concluded that “date labeling coherence” is one of the top three policy priorities for the European Union for reducing food waste.

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Incentivize food recovery. Only about 10 percent of surplus edible food is currently recovered in the United States. Clearly, there is room for significant improvement. Two tax programs that could help with this are:

Small business enhanced tax deduction:  An enhanced tax deduction for smaller businesses that donate food expired in December 2011. Unless Congress votes to extend this provision, only large businesses known as C corporations will be eligible for the enhanced deduction.  Proposed bill H.R. 3729 would go even further to incentivize donations by making the enhanced tax deduction for food donation permanent for smaller businesses, raising the cap for total deductions for food donations, and codifying other related aspects of the tax code.

Farm-level tax credits:  In January of 2012, the state of California joined Arizona, Oregon, and Colorado in offering a tax credit for donations of excess produce to state food banks.  A national tax incentive that offered incentives across the country and allowed for interstate donations could further incentivize donation of fresh produce.

Improve public awareness. Love Food Hate Waste, a major public-awareness campaign launched in the United Kingdom, has been extremely successful. Avoidable household food waste has dropped 18 percent in the five years that the campaign has run, though increased food prices likely played a part in that as well.  Possibly due to this effort, a recent survey by the U.K.’s Food Standards Agency found that food waste was one of the top three food issues of concern to the public, ranking above food safety. A large public campaign featuring widespread communications and celebrity spokespeople could be effective in putting food waste on the radar of American consumers.

There are things each of us can do on our own to reduce our own waste (see our fact sheet here for some tips), but the basis for systemic action needs to come from our nation’s leadership.  Let’s raise this issue as a priority at the national level because after all, it’s our resources are going into growing all that food that’s going to waste and our hungry neighbors who are not getting to eat it.