It seems like a paradox: 50 million Americans are hungry, yet 40 percent of food produced in the U.S. goes to waste. In fact, this paradox illuminates chronic problems in our nation’s industrial food system.
Food waste increased dramatically in 2020, as consumers changed their behavior by stockpiling shelf-stable goods, ordering more food online, and eating more at home. That meant that farmers and food-service suppliers lost their biggest customers in restaurants and institutions. At the same time, meat processing facilities became bottlenecks as COVID-19 outbreaks slowed or shut down production.
As food waste rose to unprecedented levels, America’s food banks and other donation programs were overwhelmed by demand at rates not seen since the Great Depression. Unable to pivot to meet the new patterns of demand in either charity or food service, dairy farmers were forced to dump as much as 3.7 million gallons of milk each day, one billion pounds of fresh produce were left to rot in storage, and a single large poultry producer killed nearly two million birds in the month of April.
All this occurred as payments to farmers from bailouts, subsidies, and stimulus funding reached roughly $46 billion — the highest in two decades.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed — and exacerbated — the already weak links and inequities in our industrial food system. It is a system that has grown ever-more massive in the last half century, in the name of efficiency. But today, the very size of that system impedes its efficiency and adaptability. For example, the massive consolidation of meat processing has proven to be a health hazard for its highly vulnerable work force and a liability for livestock producers. Giant slaughter and processing plants hastened the disappearance of local and regional suppliers, which may have been better suited to fill gaps in the national food supply.
Industrial agriculture has roots in the post-World War II era, when surpluses served as a defense against famine and helped gain international markets for farmers. Yet today, overproduction consumes and degrades scarce resources, pollutes excessively and depresses prices. Adding another source of irony, overproduction of certain commodity crops also exacerbates our national obesity crisis, even among many low-income Americans experiencing hunger.
Overproduction also contributes to climate change. Consider this: if global food waste had the status of a country, it would rank third behind China and the United States in greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, climate change poses new threats to agriculture. Rising temperatures and unpredictable weather events will only worsen farmers’ ability to successfully harvest crops.
Indeed, last month’s freeze in Texas resulted in more than $300 million in losses of Rio Grande Valley fruit and vegetable crops. Households, restaurants, and institutions lost huge volumes of food, due to prolonged power and water outages. Loss of the spring crop of Texas produce will send ripple effects throughout the food supply, driving up consumer prices and depleting food bank reserves.
Left unchecked, chronic problems with industrial agriculture will wreak havoc on present and future capacity to grow food and feed a hungry nation.
Policymakers have begun to address the paradox of food waste and hunger. The 2018 Farm Bill — the latest iteration of our largest piece of agricultural legislation — was the first to include several promising provisions to address food waste. A few signs of progress included funding for state food waste pilots, employment of a federal liaison to coordinate programs and research, and expanding liability protections for food donations. Implementation of these efforts represents progress. Yet the repercussions from the pandemic present a huge challenge to measuring their effectiveness in meeting the USDA and EPA goal of reducing food waste by half by 2030.
There is hope at the state and local level, as well. At least six states and seven cities have passed organic waste bans or mandatory organics recycling laws. More than 100 cities have implemented curbside composting — although many have paused because of COVID-19. While these efforts don’t reduce the amount of food that is wasted, they divert organic matter from landfills to instead make beneficial compost or energy feedstock. Finally, a bipartisan House Food Waste Caucus has worked for almost three years to promote food waste reduction across the supply chain and educate Congress members and staff. With a new administration and additional strains on our food system, updates are needed.
While these and other efforts are a meaningful start, the pandemic has taught us that feeding 330 million people effectively is not a simple matter of market forces balancing supply and demand. Ending both hunger and food waste must become core goals of U.S. food and agriculture policy.
The next farm bill, now under consideration, must ensure a resilient food system that can provide nourishment to all Americans in the face of inevitable crises. That will require a radical rethinking of farm support, food waste prevention, and increased regional and sustainable food production.
Daniel Imhoff is the author of numerous books on food and agriculture, including “Farming with the Wild,” “CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories” and “The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide,” with Christina Badaracco.
Christina Badaracco is a registered dietitian seeking to further integrate nutrition and sustainability into health care to improve the health of all Americans. She currently works in health care consulting and regularly writes and teaches about nutrition, cooking and sustainable agriculture.