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August 12, 2021

Reducing Food Waste: A Holistic Approach to an Expansive Issue

Farmers invest a lot of time, resources, and energy into producing food, but a lot of that food goes to waste.   

Food waste is a topic that has been generating substantial conversation lately due to its far-reaching impact that extends from the agricultural community to the environment. It occurs at all levels of the food supply chain, from the farm to the consumer. American farmers understand the importance of this topic on a deep and personal level, because the last thing they want to see is their hard work going to waste.  

Food waste happens on a variety of levels, including: 

  • Landfills; 
  • Incineration; 
  • Garbage disposals; or 
  • Being left in fields due to insufficient farm labor. 

To quantify the immense scope of this issue, consider the following statistics: 

There are financial, social, and ecological implications of food waste that impact farmers and consumers. In response to this issue, the USDA and EPA set an ambitious goal of reducing food waste 50 percent by 2030. In order to accomplish this, our nation must understand the repercussions of food waste on a consumer level. Only then can we unite together and each do our part to reduce food waste.  

Main Contributors to Food Waste 

Food waste is a multi-level phenomenon and occurs across all parts of the supply chain including farms, manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, and homes. As stewards of our land and natural resources, farmers carry an enormous responsibility to minimize waste on their operations—a responsibility they shouldn’t have to carry alone. In fact, we can all support farmers in their efforts to preserve and utilize the fruits of their labor through small, intentional choices. 

Consumer Appearance Standards 

Consumers often have high standards when it comes to the quality of foods we purchase. However, this leads to a fundamental problem as a lot of high-quality food is discarded due to its imperfect appearance.  

Each food purchase is a vote with our dollar. This means that what we choose to buy is what retailers choose to sell. In turn, farmers are often only able to sell food that meets these lofty specifications.  

These appearance standards are called grades. Grades are parameters that represent what consumers are willing to purchase. According to the USDA, consumers demand food that is, “high-quality, cosmetically appealing, and convenient.” Because of these stringent requirements, nearly 16.7 million tons of produce is left behind after harvest because it isn’t marketable.  

Expiration Dates 

In addition to appearance standards, consumers are also influenced by ‘best by’ dates. Oftentimes food that is safe to eat is discarded by retailers and consumers based on a misunderstanding of expiration dates. In fact, concerns over date labels lead to 50 percent of food waste from retailers.  

The Abundance Mentality 

Along with constricting appearance standards, American society has an “abundance mentality” when it comes to food. This mentality is evident by fully stocked grocery stores and larger portion sizes in restaurants. However, a lot of this food ends up going to waste. In fact, 70 percent of the waste that restaurants produce comes from plate waste. If you could shop at a grocery store with stocked shelves or one with just enough, where would you choose to shop?  

Farm Labor Shortages 

In addition to consumer demands, farm labor shortages are a major contributor to food waste at the farm level. Because many farmers struggle to find workers, they do not always have the resources necessary to harvest their crops. In fact, from 1950 to 1990, there was a 51 percent decline of hired farmworkers. No farmer wants to leave their crops in the field, but when unable to find workers, they are unfortunately left with no other choice. 

The Impacts of Food Waste 

Before exploring solutions to food waste, it is important to discuss its multifaceted effects on farmers, consumers, and the environment.  

Farmers and Wasted Inputs 

Farmers invest a tremendous amount of emotional and financial resources into their crops. As a result, they do everything they can to make sure that their crops are utilized. When crops are wasted, precious inputs like water, energy, fertilizer, seeds, and more, are also wasted. With the sharp increase in input costs, farmers simply cannot afford to not sell their crops.  

Consumers and Food Insecurity 

According to the USDA, in 2019, 10.5 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during the year. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this issue, with nearly one in four American households experiencing food insecurity between April and May 2020. The amount of hunger in our nation and world is one of the most important social issues of our time and minimizing food waste is an important part of the solution. 

The Environment and Climate Change

In addition to its financial and social implications, food waste also harms our environment because it produces methane in landfills. According to the USDA, methane is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in contributing to climate change. In fact, wasted food contributes to four percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.  

Learn more about how farmers and ranchers can build resilience to the impacts of climate change by downloading AgAmerica’s whitepaper, Climate-Smart Agriculture.

Taking Action: Strategies to Reduce Food Waste 

As leaders in the initiative to reduce food waste, farmers are already engaging in creative ways to preserve and utilize food. One way that they are doing this is by selling their food directly to consumers in local farmers markets or online. These avenues provide a way to sell perfectly good food that would otherwise be “unsellable” in conventional markets due to appearance standards.  

Other ways that farmers are working to put their crops to use include donating food, selling to livestock producers, and implementing precision ag technology in response to the farm labor shortage.  

One example of the ingenuity of farmers is a vertically integrated Southeast operation that lowered its food waste from 30 percent to less than 10 percent. They were able to do this by finding innovative uses for portions of their crops and investing in technological advancements with AgAmerica’s flexible financing solutions that increased operational efficiency. 

In addition to farmers, consumers also play an important role in reducing food waste. Change must happen at an individual level. Corporations listen to what we want based on what we purchase. One way for us to make a difference is to purchase food directly from local farmers even if the food doesn’t meet conventional appearance standards. 

Other ways consumers can make a difference in food waste management include only purchasing what you will eat, saving leftovers, and reducing portion sizes. 

AgAmerica is a Proud Supporter of Farmers in the Fight Against Food Waste. 

The American Farmer faces immense challenges in their journey of feeding our nation. Whether dealing with falling commodity prices or surging input costs, farmers overcome countless obstacles to ensure that our nation and families are provided for. We proudly stand beside our farmers to protect the fruits of their labor and advocate for their efforts.  

Our operational land loans can be utilized to invest in precision ag technology to help with labor shortages, direct-to-consumer sale platforms, and other inputs that contribute to your operation’s long-term success and positive societal and ecological impact.  

Contact AgAmerica today to learn how we support farmers across the nation with the flexible capital needed to optimize their operation and land.  

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