Our heaping food waste problem has an open secret: It can be solved

Farm to Form workshop at GreenBiz 18
ShutterstockGordon Murray
Presenters in the "Farm to Fork" workshop at GreenBiz 18 in Phoenix.

The question of food waste was, until recently, a relatively unexamined corner of our economic system. That is changing quickly. Now, with increasing focus on all aspects of sustainability, many of which (energy, water, land use, greenhouse gas emissions) are impacted by this problem, it has become a hot topic.

Add to that the recent slowdown in top line growth for major food retailers, and you have a new, untapped frontier, full of economic potential and numerous other benefits, said Chris Cochran, executive director of ReFED, a business-nonprofit-government collaboration tackling the issue. Perhaps that’s why it was standing room only at a GreenBiz 18 breakout session Wednesday about cultivating change in the food system.

The session also featured Sarah Lewis, a director of the Sustainability Consortium; Denise Osterhues, senior director of corporate affairs at Kroger; Liz Baldridge, director of sustainability and food waste initiatives at Feeding America; Haley Lowry, a sustainability marketing director at Dow Chemical; and Pete Pearson, director of food waste at WWF.

Lewis provided a few fast facts to set the stage. Half of all food produced is lost or wasted. The annual value is $940 billion. Emissions are equivalent to 4.4 gigatons of CO2. At the same time, 780 million people are hungry worldwide, with 46 million in the United States. The issue also affects the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals No. 2 (zero hunger) and No. 12 (responsible consumption and production).

The participants had plenty to say about this.

Kroger has announced its Zero Hunger Zero Waste plan with a goal eliminating hunger in the communities where 2,800 stores are located by 2025. It is already doing food rescue and donations, and selling imperfect produce at a reduced cost. Other solutions are being developed and sought. Pete Pearson of WWF is helping with data analysis.

A local food bank challenged Dow to reduce waste. The chemicals giant took on the challenge, bringing in members of its supply chain, including packaging resources. It established a produce rescue center which sorts the produce that previously would have been discarded — some provided as-is, some is packaged — which extended shelf life for as much as 20 days. What couldn’t be consumed was composted. The work was supported by the Dow Foundation Social Impact Fund. Feeding America also was involved. It ultimately helped the shelter to reduce its landed cost from 18 cents to 10 cents. Of course, all the packaging used has to be recyclable.

 Feeding America is the largest U.S. hunger organization, reaching 46 million people. Last year it rescued 3.3 billion pounds of food. It works across the entire supply chain from farmers on down through the retailers. Collaboration, said Baldridge, is key in connecting the need with the supply.

Cochran said that food waste represents an $18 billion opportunity to improve profit by reducing cost. This is one reason why there is rapid innovation in this space. But it's not the only reason. Interest in this issue is coming from all quarters. ReFED is working with foundations and investors, both for-profit or non-profit. Pisces Foundation is investing to battle climate change. Water savings potential is huge as well. Economic development is another point of entry. The state of Massachusetts has seen $175 million in economic activity. Six states already have laws requiring food recycling.

Cochran previously had been working on food waste at Walmart and decided to focus completely on that once he recognized the size of the opportunity. So he joined ReFED. "It's one of the few issues I’ve worked on that has broad-based support, is material, financially, environmentally and socially, and it’s really solvable," said Cochran, who expected to see quick progress.

"Why would WWF be into this?" asked Pearson. "What’s this got to do with saving animals?" Answering his own question: Diversity loss is driven mostly by agriculture, which causes habitat loss. "We need an institutional change. We don’t grow food to compost it." Yet we have enough land under cultivation right now. If we could eliminate the waste, there would be enough for everyone. It takes a lot of work and a smarter system. The GreenBiz 18 event lunch yielded zero waste, but it required a tremendous amount of planning.

The session closed with an interactive activity called "Fishing the Commons" to give participants a sense of the forces at play. Some fish were lost. Others were rejected because they were damaged. Sometimes the customer didn’t want any. It illustrated the inherent systemic waste, given the disconnect between how much is being produced and how much can be sold.

These are the kinds of issues that today’s technology can affect substantially and quickly. However, when we reach the point of nearly zero waste, which we surely will, how will those most in need get their food?