Food waste increases during the pandemic — compounding an existing problem

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An excerpt of excerpts from an interview by Steve Curwood that aired on Living on Earth from PRX

“The number one place we waste food in the United States is at the household level. We did that before the pandemic, we’re doing that during the pandemic and we will do that after the pandemic.”

“Our food production and distribution in the United States is very well-calibrated. Our problem is with consumers in the United States,” Mandyck said. “The number one place we waste food in the United States is at the household level. We did that before the pandemic, we’re doing that during the pandemic and we will do that after the pandemic.”

The pandemic has also revealed what Mandyck calls the “short-term balance” in the food supply chain, and because this balance has been thrown off, consumers are dealing with shortages in ways they haven’t had to before.

“We have to have consumer education and awareness to understand the scale and consequences of what happens when we throw away food.”

Consumer food waste is “a rich country dilemma,” Mandyck said. “Food is relatively inexpensive in the United States. If we throw away the 99-cent yogurt because we were confused about the date label, we simply go back and get another 99-cent yogurt. We have to have consumer education and awareness to understand the scale and consequences of what happens when we throw away that food. We have to have public policies that encourage us not to do that and that means encouraging date labels that are rational and make sense.”

Viewed on an international level, however, two-thirds of the global food supply is lost at the production and distribution level, Mandyck points out. This is an emerging economy problem.

“Food rots in poor transportation networks, it rots in open-air markets, it rots in wet markets in China, which is relevant to the pandemic that we’re having today,” Mandyck said. “So, we have to find ways to modernize that production and distribution system in emerging economies if we really want to tackle the issue on a global level.”

“If we eat a strawberry today, it came to us from California. It took a lot of carbon to grow that strawberry,” Mandyck explained. “The farmer had to go out in the field with a tractor; he had to plow the field under; he had to plant the strawberry; he had to water the strawberry. … Then he had to harvest the strawberry, using carbon. He had to bring the strawberry from the field into a packaging place, which burned electricity. It was wrapped in plastic, which is carbon-based, then put on a truck and brought it across the United States, burning carbon.

“It got to your grocery store, it sat on the shelf: The store is burning carbon waiting for you to come,” Mandyck continued. “Maybe you got in your car and burned carbon to go get the strawberry. You brought it back, you put it in your refrigerator, which is plugged in, burning carbon, and then you forgot to eat it and it went bad and it got moldy and you threw it away.

“It would have been better to throw the strawberry away in the field, from the carbon standpoint, because it was fully carbon loaded when it got to you, the consumer,” Mandyck concluded. “So, we need to understand that it’s not just throwing away the strawberry, it’s throwing away all the carbon that went into getting the strawberry to you and to me.”

Analysis:

This article is particularly interesting and relevant to my topic because it challenges my assumptions of food waste. In this article, Mandyck explains that food waste, in the United States specifically, is actually more prevalent at the household level than at any other place in the food system and he believes this will continue to occur past the pandemic. 

While this differs at the international level, he goes on to explain that in the US, not only is food waste more prevalent in households but it is actually worse to throw food away at the household level than at the primary production level because of the carbon footprint your food took to get in your hands. In other words, the supply chain and system your food goes through to get from the farm to in your hands is full of wasted carbon.

In response, Mandyck advocates for consumer education and awareness to decrease food waste at household levels. However, when examining this article, a question that comes to mind is “What if our food didn’t have as large of a carbon footprint in the first place?” For me, I wonder if intervention at the household level is just another band-aid to a growing issue rather than addressing the problem at its roots.  

Source: https://www.pri.org/stories/2020-05-28/food-waste-increases-during-pandemic-compounding-existing-problem

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