About 40% of all food sold at retail is wasted. To put this into perspective, that is about 131 billion tonnes of food that is going into landfills instead of people suffering from hunger throughout the United States. According to the FDA, wasted food is the largest constituent of most landfills and is a considerable waste of labor, energy, and water that went into the production and transport of material we throw away.
If this wasn’t already alarming, the most vital parts of this system were disrupted by the pandemic, which not only caused more food waste but also negatively influenced consumer habits, which not only increased the average carbon footprint but also contributed to the displacement of resources that would have benefited others in need.
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Since these issues plague the food production cycle in its entirety, it is only natural to start at the production stage. Perishable products such as vegetables, meats, and fresh dairy are less likely to be bought as a result of the pandemic, as the consumers want to go for products with a long shelf-life that is easy to store. This negatively impacts these industries and leads to large amounts of food waste. According to the New York Times, many dairy producers and onion farmers send a considerable amount of their product to restaurants, schools, dorms, and other institutions where food is served fresh. The closing of these spaces due to the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on farmers, causing them to dump thousands of gallons of fresh milk and several thousand onions.
While covering the challenges the several industries face would call for an article in itself, it is important to bring this back to the consumer and more specifically, how their shopping habits harm the environment.
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In a report for November 2020, the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a net 3.6% increase in the Consumer Price Index for food at home. The particular trend they observed was a spike in the purchase of meats(specifically beef), dairy, poultry, and condiments. This is problematic for two reasons:
- The dairy sector on average contributes to about 4% of worldwide emissions and carries a large carbon and water footprint. Similarly, the meat industry is a primary source of methane production and contributes to a whopping 14.5% of global emissions. A rise in the consumption of these products when combined with the aforementioned wastage of milk and meats contributes to a more wasteful society with a noticeably larger carbon footprint than average.
- Most dairy and meat producers who are dumping their products are often doing it because donating this food to food banks and other charity organizations comes with a hefty transportation cost, disincentivizing them to sell their product at a loss when the market is already struggling.
Certain consumer groups are also heavily impacted by this food shortage. More specifically, the millions of people reliant on food banks and assistive services are at a loss due to the food shortages during the pandemic. Feeding America, a prominent organization with food banks across the country estimates that it will require over three times the amount of food than last year, amounting to about 8 billion more meals than 2019. This is a significant increase in people who will remain hungry because of the pandemic and their lifeline is short of its suppliers because of their malpractice combined with questionable shopping habits by more privileged consumers.
While the situation may seem grim, there is an opportunity for us as consumers to take a stand and make some simple lifestyle changes to reduce the impact of this pandemic on the food system and minimize its impact on those affected:
- Online shopping. One of the main reasons why shoppers avoid perishable items is because they want to prevent frequent exposure to the virus. This can easily be avoided with online grocery shopping and sanitizing your produce with warm water when it arrives. This allows the consumer to stay safe from the virus but also buy fresh produce, which can greatly help the food system. However, this comes with its own consequences, such as shipping emissions and packaging waste.
- Buying from local grocers is a great way to promote sustainable farming practices and incentivizes the supply of fresh produce, which would greatly help dairy and vegetable farmers in the current shopping trend which prioritizes canned food with a higher shelf-life. This is also commonly preferable over online shopping from an environmental standpoint, as shipping and packaging can be drastically reduced.
- Donating food to your local food banks really helps out the needy and promotes a sense of community and equity. The donations also take some load off of the main producers, who would be more likely to transport smaller amounts of food at a lower cost.
- Last but not least, public policy. Signing petitions which highlight the need to aid foodbanks and farmers is a great way to convey to public officials the severity and awareness of this issue. Public city council meetings often open up time for questions or comments, this is a good opportunity to express your views and concerns to the local government.
The health of the food systems which millions depend on is just as important as personal health during this pandemic. The long term effects of the issues plaguing this system are severe and require the combined efforts of informed individuals such as yourself in order to solve them. Take these issues just as seriously as you would a public health violation in our social climate and act.