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New report outlines opportunities to use the farm bill to cut food waste

A new report urges Congress to make reducing food waste a priority in the 2023 farm bill in order to address climate change and hunger while benefiting the economy.

The U.S. wastes more than one-third of the food it produces and imports, according to the report, published last week by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic, the Natural Resources Defense Council, ReFED and the World Wildlife Fund.

If just 30% of wasted food were diverted from landfills to the emergency food system, it could feed all of the estimated 50 million Americans who are food insecure, the report said. Food waste also has a large environmental impact; it generates 270 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year. And the U.S. uses a fifth of its fresh water and cropland to produce food that goes uneaten, the report’s authors said.

The farm bill, the nation’s most important piece of agricultural legislation, provides many opportunities to address the problem, the report said.

The U.S. has set a goal of halving food loss and waste by 2030. The 2018 farm bill was the first to tackle food waste, by establishing new positions and programs at the USDA, updating food donation rules and funding community waste-reduction efforts. But much remains to be done, said Emily Broad Leib, faculty director of the Food Law and Policy Clinic and a lead author of the report.

The report makes a series of recommendations for how to reduce waste, cut emissions, and redirect food to hungry people.

Clear, consistent dates on food labels would help prevent food waste, but there is no federal regulation for these dates or the terms manufacturers use — leaving consumers to sort out a range of “sell by,” “expires on,” and “use by” dates. At the same time, manufacturers have considerable leeway on the dates that are printed on labels, and often use dates that reflect taste and quality rather than food safety, the report said. That means food that could safely be eaten or donated goes to the landfill.

The report also recommended ways to increase the recovery of surplus food so it can be redirected to the hungry. Some businesses remain reluctant to donate extra food over liability concerns, so the report recommended strengthening and clarifying the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which protects donors from liability if someone gets sick. It also urged the USDA to invest more in food recovery infrastructure and to continue supporting innovative community food recovery models with grants.

Food waste is the largest component of landfills, accounting for 4% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions annually, the report said. But policies like charging fees to deposit organic waste in landfills, or banning food scraps from landfills could incentivize large generators of food waste like hospitals or grocery stores to find ways to recycle or compost food. The report urged the Farm Bill to give state, local, and tribal governments $650 million annually over 10 years to plan and implement food-waste-reduction policies.

The report also urged greater coordination among federal agencies to address food waste and conduct comprehensive research. The 2018 farm bill created the position of a Food Loss and Waste Reduction Liaison at the USDA who coordinates food reduction efforts across agencies and publishes research. But since the position is a single person with no support staff, its effectiveness is limited, the report said. The report recommended expanding the position into a Food Loss and Waste Office. It also recommended that Congress authorize $2 million in annual funding to an interagency task force to reduce food loss and require other federal agencies, such as the departments of Defense and Education, to participate in the effort.

Given the farm bill’s size and reach, including these sorts of measures in the 2023 version would result in “measurable progress in the fight against food waste,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED. “This is how we can really drive action.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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