We were excited to see the release of the Draft National Strategy for Reducing Food Loss and Waste and Recycling Organics last week at COP28. It’s part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s “whole-of-government” approach to fighting climate change and advancing a circular economy, and while much of it covers existing efforts from USDA, EPA, and FDA, there are also some new initiatives. The draft strategy aligns with the Biden-Harris Administration's National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, and importantly, it’s also building on the promise of action made this past January at the North American Leaders Summit, when food waste reduction was listed as one of just six climate-related commitments made by the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
So what’s in the draft strategy? Here are some things we find interesting, as well as a few lingering concerns…
First things first – it’s great that we’ve gotten to this point! The food waste community has been anticipating this, so we’re glad to see it finally made available for comments.
The strategy is also a new focal point for work on food waste. While much of the document cites programs that have existed for a while at EPA, USDA, or FDA, there’s been no central place where the work has been captured. Unfortunately, the strategy doesn’t go as far as recommending the establishment of an Office of Food Loss and Waste – a key policy recommendation from the Zero Food Waste Coalition – but there are still opportunities for that to be added to the next Farm Bill.
We’re glad to see an emphasis on preventing food from being lost or wasted. Two of the four objectives in the draft strategy focus on prevention – of food loss by optimizing harvests, manufacturing, storage, and distribution; and of food waste through education, private sector partnerships, solutions-testing, and more – upstream activities that will result in a greater GHG reduction impact.
One of the most exciting new components of the strategy is that EPA has committed to a consumer education campaign. With the largest portion of food waste happening at the household level, it’s critical for consumers to learn proper food management practices, and a public education campaign would establish an important foundation for shifting behaviors. The draft strategy states that “Communities will be able to customize the campaign to fit their needs and audiences” – an important step in making sure the campaign resonates with as many people as possible, including diverse audiences. However, campaigns of this nature take time – think of how long it took to change behaviors around smoking. Our hope is that this effort receives enough funding to create a truly national campaign with a commitment for at least five years in order to begin to really shift consumer behavior.
Relatedly, the strategy calls for the creation of a "Center for Research, Behavioral Economics, and Extension on Food, Loss and Waste" at USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which would hopefully inspire more work on the topic by the more than 100 land grant universities (including tribal colleges) in the U.S.; it would also help with overall coordination of these efforts.
There’s a solid focus on research and measurement, referring to USDA and EPA support of initiatives to develop new tracking tools for household waste, refine and expand food donation data, explore the return on investment for different food loss and waste reduction activities, quantify and communicate the environmental and economic values of using compost, and more. It also mentions continuing several existing research programs, such as one at USDA that helps with R&D for upcycling. We’re glad to see these efforts that will increase the knowledge base and monitoring of food waste reduction – they’re a great example of the unique role that the federal government can play in providing foundational support for food waste reduction efforts.
Several new tools are proposed as well – for example, a decision-support tool to help local governments and businesses determine the best pathway for managing (and hopefully recycling) their food waste given their geography, etc. Another would help decision-makers assess economic feasibility and benefits of co-digestion. It was great to see the draft strategy recognize the work of the Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment, a public-private partnership among food businesses along the West Coast to work together to cut waste – building on that effort's successes, ReFED and WWF recently announced the U.S. Food Waste Pact, a national voluntary agreement for businesses to track and share data, participate in working groups, and operationalize solutions, all with the goal of developing and sharing insights and best practices that can drive action across the entire industry.
The strategy mentions several existing grant programs. Hopefully, this is a signal that there will be a new focus on funding food loss and waste projects within these existing grant programs. For instance, USDA’s Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) are all mentioned. These grant programs are not dedicated to food loss and waste, but they have the capacity to fund related projects within their purview. Our hope is that by being included in this draft strategy, food loss and waste will become more of a focus of those grant programs.
All of these initiatives depend on funding, and there are several places where the draft strategy is notably vague about whether funding has yet been secured. It’s our hope that the government supports this strategy by putting the necessary funding behind it. Another noticeable missing aspect is the mention of other federal agencies beyond EPA, FDA, and USDA. It would have been great to see plans for how an agency like the Department of Defense – which oversees a huge amount of food each day – can incorporate food waste reduction strategies into its operations.
There are perhaps a few other missing pieces as well. We’ll be combing over it throughout the coming weeks to develop our own comments and encourage you to do the same.
All things considered, overall we think this new draft strategy is a big step forward in using the power of the federal government to drive positive action on food waste – here in the U.S. and also as a model for other countries around the world – and we’re looking forward to seeing how its provisions are enacted.
Share your comments on the new draft strategy here – search for docket no. EPA-HQ-OLEM-2022-0415.