Careful readers may wonder: What’s the difference between food loss and food waste? Waste occurs toward the back end of the food chain, at the retail and consumer level. In general, the richer the nation, the higher its per capita rate of waste. Loss, on the other hand, mostly occurs at the front of the food chain—during production, postharvest, and processing—and it’s far less prevalent in industrialized nations than in the developing world, which tends to lack the infrastructure to deliver all of its food, in decent shape, to consumers eager to eat it.
Take Africa, for example. Without adequate storage facilities and transportation, 10 to 20 percent of the continent’s sub-Saharan grain succumbs to enemies such as mold, insects, and rodents. That’s four billion dollars’ worth of food, enough to nourish 48 million people for a year. In the absence of refrigeration, dairy products sour and fish ooze. Without the capacity to pickle, can, dry, or bottle foods, surpluses of perishables like okra, mangoes, and cabbage can’t be converted into shelf-stable foods. Bad road and rail conditions slow tomatoes’ trek from farm to market, poorly packed fruit gets jostled into mush, vegetables wilt and rot for lack of shade and cooling. Facing similar challenges, India loses an estimated 35 to 40 percent of its fruits and vegetables.
Unsold tomatoes fill a Dumpster at a farmers market in Asheville, North Carolina, even though community kitchens collect some of the castoffs from vendors five days a week. About 26 percent of fresh tomatoes in the United States never make it into consumer hands.
In developed nations, hyperefficient farming practices, plenty of refrigeration, and top-notch transportation, storage, and communications ensure that most of the food we grow makes it to the retail level (the piles at the Sun Street Transfer Station notwithstanding). But things go rapidly south from there. According to the FAO, industrialized nations waste 1.5 trillion pounds of food a year, an amount almost equal to the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa.
Calories are wasted at restaurants that serve overly large portions or fashion elaborate buffets—where diners help themselves to excessive portions and employees dump everything at closing time, even if it’s been under the sneeze guard for only five minutes.
Though they do their best to hide it from public view, American food retailers typically experience in-store losses of 43 billion pounds of food a year. Store managers routinely overorder, for fear of running out of a particular product, losing customers, and consequently, their jobs. Entire shelves of perfectly edible shell peas are transferred into Dumpsters to make room for incoming ones; pallets of zucchini are rejected because they curve too much. If the affected wholesaler can’t quickly find another market nearby (a discount chain that tolerates curvy vegetables, for example, or a food bank with refrigerated space), the load will be dumped. The British supermarket chain Tesco, which publicly committed to reducing waste in recent years, still admitted to throwing out more than 110 million pounds of food within their U.K. stores during the latest fiscal year.
Consumers are also complicit: We overbuy because relatively cheap and seductively packaged food is available at nearly every turn. We store food improperly; we take “use by” dates literally, though such stamps were designed to communicate peak freshness and have nothing to do with food safety. We forget to eat our leftovers, we leave our doggy bags in restaurants, and we suffer little or no consequence for scraping edible food into a bin.