When I was climbing mountains, and had to carry 30 days’ worth of food on my back, I measured my oatmeal, cheese, and beans down to the last teaspoonful. I would lick the inside of a margarine wrapper to make sure I didn’t miss a single calorie. I needed all the energy I could get to keep climbing. I would never throw away food on a climb, just as I would never leave the house with all the lights on, or air-condition an empty room.
Mountain climbers today still have to be strategic about conserving food and energy, but they have more advanced tools to help, like super-lightweight backpacks and tents, and nutrient-dense energy bars—products specially designed to keep loads as light as possible. And at home, anyone can save energy more easily with tools like programmable thermostats, energy-saving bulbs, and fuel-efficient cars. But when it comes to saving food, our toolkit doesn’t go much beyond Tupperware. In fact, all along the line, our food system actually encourages waste, from farm, to store, to fridge.
Forty percent of the food in this country—almost half—is never eaten. We know we can reduce this waste once we put our minds to it. We’ve done it already, with great success, with energy. Governments, working with and encouraged by advocacy groups, designed programs to educate consumers and to prod manufacturers to design better products—light bulbs, refrigerators, cars—that made saving energy easier. Activists and innovators are just starting to develop solutions for food waste. We need a similar movement to build momentum behind these efforts and start bringing these solutions, literally, to the table. And to farms, stores, restaurants and dining services everywhere.
First, we know that personal actions can reduce waste. Just like remembering to turn off the lights when you leave a room, a simple tweak like making a shopping list and sticking to it, or checking your cupboards before going to the store, can dramatically reduce food waste. In the United Kingdom, households that followed simple guidelines like these trimmed their avoidable food waste by 18 percent.
We can cut waste even further when we monitor it. Imagine if you had a smart meter not just on your electric outlets but on your kitchen garbage bin. (Some restaurants and food service companies are already using a system like this.) Or if your smart fridge could tell you that the broccoli you bought last week really should be eaten today, and suggest a recipe for it.
Grocery stores that monitor waste are finding they can save money and improve customer satisfaction by reducing the amount of food on display, so that the food in front of customers remains fresh. And some innovative food retailers are finding new markets for “funny fruit,” which might be too small or asymmetrical to meet big buyers’ standards but still tastes fine. This food that would otherwise never make it off the farm could go to a discount store, or food bank, or be made into jams instead of being wasted.
Most importantly, we need the government to start addressing food waste, in the same way we’ve tackled energy efficiency. Smart policies can move markets and encourage innovation on a big scale. They also protect consumers. Thanks to government guidelines, when you buy a car, you know how many miles per gallon it gets. When you shop for a new appliance, the label tells you how much energy it uses. Proper labeling lets consumers make energy-efficient decisions. But that doesn’t exist for food.
What we have is a hodge-podge of labels bearing dates that have nothing to do with food safety. They are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. One survey suggests that 60 percent of Americans throw out food prematurely because of confusion over expiration dates. In the United Kingdom, they estimate that their new food labeling guidelines could reduce food waste in homes by 20 percent.
Smart energy-efficiency policies have spurred the development of cars that go twice as far on a gallon of gas, and refrigerators that use 75 percent less energy than they did 30 years ago, all while giving consumers more choices than ever.
A similar focus on food efficiency can spark a comparable flurry of innovation. Licking margarine wrappers might be a useful mountain-climbing strategy, but it is not the way to build a sustainable food system. We need to give consumers, retailers and producers the practical tools they need to reduce waste, and we need to start today.