Food education needed: American ecological footprints out of control
Data from across the Atlantic highlights the distance we still have to go to reduce consumer food waste. Targeted solutions and tough action are required, including improving food education to reduce the ecological footprint of our food consumption.
In November 2015 the Obama administration set a major food sustainability goal for the USA: to halve food waste in the country by 2030. The objective is perfectly in line with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, but sits in stark contrast to current data which reveals that Americans waste 37 billion kilograms of food every year, and in many cases are unaware that this is even a problem, owing to a generally poor level of food education.
“In high-income countries such as the USA, the amount of food thrown away or wasted by retailers and consumers is significant” say researchers from Ohio State University, authors of a study on the ecological footprint of food waste recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE. They added that in 2010 1,249 calories worth of food were wasted per US citizen per day, with two thirds of this waste attributed to end-consumers.
Who’s afraid of waste?
The survey was designed as a representative sample of the US adult population and highlights some of the typical attitudes and beliefs held by those Americans who are creating this food waste, and who are likely to be similar to populations in other industrialised countries. Poor awareness, linked to poor food education, is clearly a determining factor: only 53% of those interviewed see food waste as a problem.
The study also reveals that around 77% of Americans, particularly women, feel guilty about food waste, but fewer than 6 in 10 think that throwing away food causes environmental damage and only 4 in 10 believe that throwing away food is one of the main ways that families waste money. In general, respondents demonstrated little awareness of the ecological footprint created by their own consumption.
Many consumers (70%) believe that throwing away food after the expiry date on the packaging is good practice for protecting themselves and their families from food-borne infections, while others (60%) claim that food waste is justified because they want fresh, flavourful food. Others claim they have no time to spend on the issue of food waste: at least 8 in 10 Americans believe they are in line with other consumers in terms of the quantity of food they throw away and around half of those interviewed said it would be difficult for them to reduce their food waste any further.
“The first steps toward improving the situation are undoubtedly increasing consumer awareness and knowledge. Without these it is impossible to implement effective strategies to combat the problem of food waste,” say the experts at Ohio State, underlining the need for solutions to all of the findings highlighted in the research.
For example, to challenge the belief that an individual’s food waste is in some way “the norm”, it might be useful to develop tools to more accurately measure household waste. One such example would be a smartphone app, something that the authors of the study are currently working on. Another measure which would be particularly useful in high-income countries like the USA, where food waste does not significantly impact family budgets, is the labelling of products on shelves.
Numerous scientific studies show that, contrary to popular belief, consuming products that are past the expiry date on the label does not cause illness except in a few specific cases such as meat, fresh fish, milk and other unprocessed foods. Once again it comes down to providing the correct information. This is the only way to educate consumers on what packaging labels actually mean (including the real definition of expiry date) and how this relates to health.