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November 15, 2019

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Americans waste up to 40 percent of the food they produce

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.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    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.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Paint the picture for me. How much food do we waste here in the United States?

  • Elizabeth Balkan:

    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.

  • Megan Thompson:

    What are the connections between the amount of food that we waste, and environmental impacts, climate change?

  • Elizabeth Balkan:

    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.

  • Megan Thompson:

    What are the biggest contributors to food waste here?

  • Elizabeth Balkan:

    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.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So it sounds like culture plays a role in some of this.

  • Elizabeth Balkan:

    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.

  • Megan Thompson:

    What are steps that individual consumers can take?

  • Elizabeth Balkan:

    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.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Elizabeth Balkan, thank you so much.

  • Elizabeth Balkan:

    Thank you.

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