Reducing Food Waste for the Benefit of our Cities and our Climate

By: Jane Nishida, Principal Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of International and Tribal Affairs, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

This week, leaders from around the world are converging in Quito to explore how we can support one another in implementing the New Urban Agenda, and how actions taken today can help us meet our shared Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Among the many planned events, Habitat 3 will host several thought-provoking discussions about how cities can address climate change and develop sustainable food systems. These conversations are well-timed, especially with the commemoration of World Food Day on October 16, which reminds us that food scarcity continues to challenge our communities and inspires us to take action globally and locally.

As we consider the nearly 800 million people who do not have enough food, we also face the staggering statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that approximately 1/3 of all food is lost or wasted.

At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we believe that preventing food waste plays a critical role in efforts to develop sustainable food systems and to protect human health and the environment.

Photo 1: In September 2015, leadership from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. EPA announce a national goal to reduce food loss and waste by 50% by 2030 [Photo City Harvest]. Photo 2: U.S. EPA works to mobilize action on food waste internationally and participates in Champions of 12.3 and Feeding the 5000 events, where food that would otherwise be wasted is tastefully prepared and enjoyed [Photo U.S. EPA]

Like so many of the issues we tackle, the food waste challenge requires action at multiple levels. As national government agencies, the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a commitment to a U.S. national goal of reducing food loss and waste by 50 percent by the year 2030. This goal is shared by those aspiring to achieve the SDG Target 12.3 and has also been reflected in resolutions of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Urban food systems are on the agenda of coalitions of local leaders like the C40 and signatories of the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, demonstrating to the world that the connection between food and sustainable urban development is resoundingly clear and ripe for action. In this context, food waste presents both challenges and opportunities for cities.

In the United States, more than 20 percent of municipal solid waste in our landfills is wasted food.

With increased urbanization around the world, changes in consumption patterns and food distribution systems are presenting increasing challenges for management of food waste. In the short- and medium-term, municipalities are paying the price for this wasted food: in collection, transportation, and disposal costs and in the amount of land being used for landfills. In the long-term, we all pay an additional price with regard to impacts on our climate.

If food loss and waste were a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), around eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, or 4.4 Gtonnes of CO2 equivalents, are associated with food that is lost or wasted. Among these emissions is methane, a greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

Wasted food in landfills generates methane, a greenhouse gas with more than 20 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide (AP Photo).

At the same time, taking another look at our food systems to identify food that is at risk of being wasted offers exciting opportunities for addressing food security. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working with 800 businesses and organizations through the Food Recovery Challenge — a program that provides tools for grocers, universities, sports venues, hotels and more to make their food practices more sustainable and measure their results. In 2014, participants successfully prevented and diverted more than 6,000 tons of food from entering landfills or incinerators. Much of this diversion resulted from increased connectivity between institutions that have food to spare and local food banks, faith-based organizations, and other charitable groups.

EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes actions we can take to prevent and divert wasted food [Image U.S. EPA]

In the future, U.S. EPA plans to release a Wasted Food and Other Organics Disposal (FOOD) Mapping tool which will support local actors in the United States with specific geospatial information they can use to identify opportunities to decrease the amount of food going to landfills. The Wasted FOOD mapping tool will be national in scope, making it easier to identify sources of wasted food and facilities to manage it across state lines. In the meantime, U.S. EPA offers tools for those charged with making decisions about managing waste streams at the local level, to support them as they develop plans for less waste.

Preventing food from being wasted has benefits in boosting the availability of food locally and resilience, reducing costs and land used to dispose of food waste, and avoiding greenhouse gas emissions, particularly methane.

At U.S. EPA, we are committed to continued action to prevent and reduce food waste through 2030 and beyond, and recognize that success in meeting the national goal to reduce food loss and waste by half by 2030 will take a great deal of cooperation with new and existing partners in cities across the country and around the world.

Read other blogs on themes from Habitat III Summit in Quito here in our U.S. at Habitat III publication. This entry also appeared on DipNote, the U.S. State Department’s Official Blog.