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Is France’s groundbreaking food-waste law working?
If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China and the United States. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson sat down with Elizabeth Balkan, director of food waste for the Natural Resources Defense Council, to find out more. This report is part of our "Future of Food" series, which is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
China and the U.S. are the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. If food waste were a country, it would be the third largest. To learn more about the impact of food waste on the environment – and how big the problem is here in the United States – NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson recently sat down with Elizabeth Balkan, the food waste director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Paint the picture for me. How much food do we waste here in the United States?
In the U.S., up to 40 percent of the food that is produced every year goes wasted. That translates into an economic loss of $218 billion per year, and at the individual level, a household of four spends, on average, $1,500 or more, per year, on food that never gets eaten.
What are the connections between the amount of food that we waste, and environmental impacts, climate change?
The greenhouse gasses associated with food waste amount to roughly 37 million passenger vehicles on the road. Not only do you have the contributions from methane when food waste rots in a landfill, but you have all these other resources that go into the production, the manufacturing, the transportation, the storage and distribution. All of those resources are swallowed up when we waste food, rather than eat it. Of the top 100 most impactful things that we can do to address climate change, food waste prevention is number three. It's not solar power, it's not wind power, it's food waste prevention.
What are the biggest contributors to food waste here?
Overall consumers, and consumer facing businesses, restaurants, cafeterias are responsible for over 80 percent of the food waste in this country. For example, in restaurants, the vast majority of food waste comes from what is leftover on people's plates, or post-consumer waste. So, if we want to really tackle the food waste that's happening in restaurants, for example, we need to start addressing the harder part of the puzzle, which is customer behavior.
So it sounds like culture plays a role in some of this.
Culture plays a huge role in it and is really part of the equation in the U.S. in a fundamental way. In this country I think we have certain expectations about the way that food is presented. We like abundance, and food is very cheap in this country, so the cost to businesses of wasting food is not so outsized when compared to either the consumer expectation, or the business's expectation of what the consumer expects to see when they walk into a hotel buffet, or they walk into a supermarket aisle.
What are steps that individual consumers can take?
We don't want consumers to feel like they're the villains here. A lot of the source reason for food waste is connected to things like date labels. Date labels didn't really exist before the 1970s. And before then people would use their senses, they would use the smell test on milk, they might try a little bit of yogurt, and if something tasted fine, or smelled okay, it didn't smell like it had gone off, they would eat it. So, what you see when you look at a date label that says "best if used by," has nothing to do with food safety, but it's manufacturer suggestion about when this food item is at its peak freshness. Which is inherently a subjective thing. In fact, besides baby formula, there is really no regulation around date labels. So, there's enormous opportunity to reform date labels to be consistent with public health information, and science, and in doing do prevent a ton of food from going to waste.
Elizabeth Balkan, thank you so much.
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Megan Thompson shoots, produces and reports on-camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her report "Costly Generics" earned an Emmy nomination and won Gracie and National Headliner Awards. She was also recently awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship to report on the issue of mental health. Previously, Thompson worked for the PBS shows and series Need to Know, Treasures of New York, WorldFocus and NOW on PBS. Prior to her career in journalism she worked in research and communications on Capitol Hill. She originally hails from the great state of Minnesota and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a MA in Journalism from New York University.
Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
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