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SESYNC – Environmental Impacts of Food Waste

The overall objective of this project was to define and measure the ecological and environmental impacts of food loss and waste within the U.S. food system taking into consideration all sources of impacts from input sourcing in agricultural production through landfill disposal of waste across types of foods. The intent was to provide actionable results that can help target cost-effective food waste reduction efforts under public and private initiatives. This is a SESYNC Foundations Project, organized by Mary K. Muth at RTI International, muth@rti.org.

The research team produced a journal article published in the Science of the Total Environment in April 2019 entitled A Systems Approach to Assessing Environmental and Economic Effects of Food Loss and Waste Interventions in the United States.

Research Questions

  • What are the key sources of ecological and environmental impacts of food waste and loss along the U.S. food supply chain including production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption, and disposal?
  • What are the best methods and data sources for measuring the ecological and environmental impacts of food waste and loss by region of the country taking into account all types of impacts throughout the supply chain?
  • What are the key dimensions relevant for measuring the impacts of food waste by region of the country (e.g., type of food system, types of food and degree of processing, types of packaging, and end-users of the food.)
  • How can the economic value of ecological and environmental resources used in the production of food be measured?
  • Based on cost-effectiveness measures, where should initiatives to reduce food waste and loss focus their efforts in different regions of the country?

Research Summary

Reducing food loss and waste (FLW) is critical for achieving healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Within the United States, 30% to 50% of food produced is lost or wasted. These losses occur throughout multiple stages of the food supply chain from production to consumption. Reducing FLW prevents the waste of land, water, energy,and other resources embedded in food and is therefore essential to improving the sustainability of food systems. Despite the increasing number of studies identifying FLW reduction as a societal imperative, we lack the information needed to assess fully the effectiveness of interventions along the supply chain. In this paper, we synthesize the available literature, data, and methods for estimating the volume of FLW and assessing the full environmental and economic effects of interventions to prevent or reduce FLW in the United States. We describe potential FLW interventions in detail, including policy changes, technological solutions, and changes in practices and behaviors at all stages of the food system from farms to consumers and approaches to conducting economic analyses of the effects of interventions. In summary, this paper comprehensively reviews available information on the causes and consequences of FLW in the United States and lays the groundwork for prioritizing FLW interventions to benefit the environment and stakeholders in the food system.

FLW has substantial environmental consequences and although solutions are being pursued, most have not been assessed in an economic framework. To do so requires developing measures of both the potential environmental benefits and the costs of implementing interventions.Assessment of the environmental benefits and economic costs depends on whether interventions focus on prevention, recovery, or recycling of FLW and whether they are mandated or adopted on a voluntary basis.This paper provides background information for developing an integrated modeling approach for prioritizing investments in FLW interventions while considering costs to industry, consumers, and government relative to environmental benefits. The information synthesized in this paper indicates the importance of prioritizing FLW prevention over recovery and recycling, given the high amount of virtual resources lost when food is wasted, but better data and further research are needed to rank the cost-effectiveness of specific interventions. Supplementary data to this article can be found online at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.06.230.

 


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