In The News Quiz October 25, 2021

Food Waste: Turning the Corner?

A major new study by the United Nations calls attention to the acute and growing problem of food waste around the globe. More than a billion tons of food is thrown away each year worldwide. With hundreds of millions of people suffering from hunger or food insecurity, that nearly 1/5 of global food production that is wasted could, if distributed efficiently, feed the world’s hungry.

Food waste is also an environmental problem. Much of that food winds up in landfills, where as it decomposes it releases greenhouse gases. If food waste were a country, it would rank third on the list of contributors to global warming, after China and the U.S.

In the U.S., some $160 billion worth of edible food is tossed out each year—more than a third of the nation’s food supply. Individual households are the largest contributor, at around 40% of the total, with businesses selling food (restaurants, grocery stores, institutional sources like school or prison cafeterias) a close second. Farther behind, at roughly 20% of America’s food waste, are farmers: because of government rules, issues with production or transportation, or low agricultural prices, crops are left to decompose in fields or stuck unused in silos.

U.S. government agencies involved with food, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food & Drug Administration (FDA), have set a goal of cutting food waste in half by 2030. What could the government do to encourage reduced food flows into landfills or less food rotting in farmers’ fields? Leading ideas include funds to enhance transportation networks (so perishable food remains fresh longer on supermarket shelves); encouraging or even mandating smaller portion sizes served in restaurants (less food on the plate means less is thrown away); and providing resources to encourage food recovery, or collection and distribution of food that is of sound quality but marked for disposal, and providing it to food banks and soup kitchens.

What do you think? Advocates argue that the economic, environmental, and public-health toll taken by wasted food must be addressed by government officials. Opponents disagree: the short-term cost of addressing the issue could be higher than the cost of wasted food, say some economists. Others cite individuals’ right to eat as much or little as they like, without the heavy hand of government directing consumption or disposal. Who is right?

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