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Food Policy as Climate Policy: How Waste Reduction Can Contribute to a Greener Tomorrow

Food waste is among the most significant – and overlooked – contributors to climate change today, accounting for about eight percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Indeed, if it were its own country, food waste would have the third largest carbon footprint on the planet, outweighing even that of the mass-polluting airline industry. In the United States, 30 to 40 percent of all food is wasted. When uneaten food is sent to landfills, it produces methane, an environmentally devastating greenhouse gas that is 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Food waste is a critical area for reform in the fight against climate change, and one that could simultaneously help to alleviate the food insecurity that plagues upwards of 35 million Americans. In order to satisfy the country’s long-term climate obligations as a newly rejoined member of the Paris Agreement, mitigating food waste will be pivotal.

As part of the 2030 Food Loss and Waste Reduction Goal (implemented in 2015), the federal government sought to halve food waste and loss over the next 15 years. Under President Biden’s climate agenda, this goal will certainly become a point of renewed emphasis, so what political actions can be taken to help substantially curb domestic food waste? As it turns out, the federal government has important food waste reduction options at its disposal, including the standardization of food labels and the development of methods to facilitate augmented food donation. In the coming years, as the threat of climate change looms increasingly large, these strategies will be critical means of promoting climate-conscious food consumption and sustainability, all while expanding food access for the United States’ underfed population.

Though it may seem minor, food labeling is perhaps the most significant focus in efforts to reduce the nation’s waste woes. Since the introduction of date labels in the 1970s, they have become a major source of confusion for many consumers who, once an item’s “sell by” date has passed, wrongly assume that the item has spoiled and is no longer safe to eat. In reality, expiration dates are typically based on when a manufacturer expects food to taste the most fresh, with differing standards across states. More than anything, “sell by” dates are essentially stocking and marketing ploys designed to manage food products’ shelf lives and increase the frequency with which consumers buy these products. As a result, 84 percent of consumers report throwing away food near the package date regularly or occasionally when it was not necessary to do so.

In a 2019 brief, the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) offered three key recommendations for future federal labeling regulations. First, the FLPC urged the creation of separate, standardized phrases for food quality, or freshness, and safety. The clinic also recommended eliminating restrictions on food donation or sale after the quality date has elapsed. Lastly, the FLPC pushed for a national consumer education program that would discourage the premature discard of food (akin to the United Kingdom’s “Love Food, Hate Waste” initiative, which contributed to a 15 percent decline in home food waste from 2007 to 2012). According to the brief, federal standards for date labeling could redirect nearly 400,000 tons of food waste, yielding $1.8 billion in economic value in the process.

In summer 2019, the introduction of the Food Date Labeling Act in the House of Representatives seemed to represent a promising first step toward the policy suggestions outlined in the FLPC’s report. The Act would have established two standard labels for use by manufacturers: a “best if used by” date to mark quality or freshness, in addition to a “use by” date to indicate the latest date after which an item is no longer safe to consume. Unfortunately, the Act died in Congress despite receiving bipartisan support and backing from the powerful food industry. For example, the Food Marketing Institute lobbied in favor of the legislation six times between 2019 and 2020, and – in conjunction with the Grocery Manufacturers Association – the Institute explicitly praised the two-label system that the bill proposed as a means of reducing waste. Nevertheless, the Food Date Labeling Act failed to even make it out of deliberations in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, as did a 2016 bill of the same name (introduced by Maine Representative Chellie Pingree, who also sponsored the 2019 bill). For a future law of this nature to gain real traction and pierce the political malaise of Capitol Hill, committee members must begin to take the issue of food waste seriously in their attempts to combat climate change.

In addition to date labeling, food donations can and should be federally streamlined to encourage food providers to give away – rather than throw away – excess items. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act of 1996, in particular, is ripe for reform. The Act grants liability protection to those who donate food as well as the food recovery nonprofits that receive and dispense food donations to the needy. A 2017 FLPC and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report highlighted some crucial flaws in this legislation, including the fact that, bizarrely, Congress never entrusted the Emerson Act to any one federal agency, meaning that there is no agency to definitively administer, enforce, or clarify the vague language of the Act (e.g., the definition of a “needy individual”). Given the lack of a singular administrative authority to spread awareness of the Act’s liability protections, it comes as no surprise that many would-be donors end up wasting food instead of donating: 50 percent of manufacturers, 25 percent of retailers and wholesalers, and 39 percent of restaurants cited liability concerns as a barrier to food donation in a 2016 analysis.

The FLPC and NRDC report also criticizes the onerous liability stipulations under the existing Emerson Act. For one, the Act only offers liability protection for nonprofit food recovery groups that distribute food for free, so it does not apply to nonprofits that sell food at reduced rates (often only in order to cover their own operating costs). Also, because the Act requires entities to donate food through an intermediary – a qualified food bank – in order to receive liability protection, licensed food producers and service providers cannot directly donate to needy people. This unnecessarily constrains and bureaucratizes the waste-reducing food donation process. Finally, in line with the need for date labeling reform, the Emerson Act currently contains strict, non-safety-related label requirements for protected donations, and it does not expressly protect past-date donations. By assigning the Emerson Act to an agency, expanding its liability protections, and axing its burdensome regulations, Congress can better promote food donation, helping to feed the malnourished and limit the greenhouse emissions of food waste.

Needless to say, these are far from the only steps that can be taken to limit food waste at the federal level. As part of its 2015 omnibus spending bill, Congress enhanced and expanded tax deductions for charitable food donations. This step in the right direction allowed all businesses with surplus food – including smaller organizations like farms and ranches – to receive substantial tax incentives. Still, these incentives can be further improved by covering transportation costs for donated food and by reducing non-safety-related compliance standards, which would diminish waste while bolstering food security for those who need it most.

Of course, the federal government does not bear sole responsibility for helping to curtail food waste. States and municipalities, too, have instrumental roles to play. US landfills received 35 million tons of food waste in 2018. Because food decomposition leads to dangerous methane emissions, governments would be wise to follow in the footsteps of states like California and Massachusetts, which have enacted regulations to limit the organic waste that can be sent to landfills. In 2019, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) sponsored student-led school cafeteria audits and education campaigns as part of its Food Waste Warrior project; with minimal interventions, the WWF reported that schools saw a three percent average decrease in food waste, with participating elementary schools reducing waste by 14 percent. Across the country, the WWF estimates that school-wide food waste could exceed 530,000 tons annually – or almost two million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Through concerted initiatives to educate students about the prevalence and dangers of food waste, individual school districts can start to minimize cafeteria waste and, at the same time, cultivate enriching learning opportunities.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wrote in 2019, “Keeping global warming to well below 2ºC can be achieved only by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors including land and food.” From the federal government down to state and local actors, US policymakers must consider innovative measures to lessen food waste and play their part in tackling climate change.

Image via Flickr (John Englart)