ReFED has released new estimates on the extent, causes, and impacts of food loss and waste in the United States, as well as an updated analysis of the solutions needed to fight it. The findings represent a stark call to action for food businesses, funders, policymakers, and other food system stakeholders to dramatically ramp up the investments, operational changes, and policy shifts that are critical to cutting the amount of food going to waste in the country. The new data comes from the ReFED Insights Engine, an online hub for data and solutions that features the most comprehensive examination of food waste in the U.S., now updated to include estimates through 2021.
According to ReFED, in 2021 the U.S. generated 91 million tons of “surplus food,” defined as all food that goes unsold or uneaten. This represents 38% of U.S. food supply and contributes nearly 6% of the country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions – the equivalent of driving 83 million passenger vehicles for one full year. Close to 50% of this surplus was generated by households, with another 20% generated by consumer-facing businesses. And while 80% of total surplus food was edible parts, less than 2% was donated.
Beyond emissions, producing food that goes unsold or uneaten uses 22% of U.S. freshwater and 16% of cropland. Wasted food is also a drain on the economy, since food that goes uneaten still costs money to grow, harvest, transport, cool, prepare, and then ultimately dispose of. ReFED’s analysis places the value of food that went unsold or uneaten at $444 billion in 2021, approximately 2% of U.S. GDP. What’s more, the amount of food that goes uneaten is the equivalent of 149 billion meals’ worth of food that could have gone to the 10% of Americans who struggle with food insecurity.
"Although we had hoped that our analysis would show more progress in reducing food waste, we’re unfortunately at about the same levels as we were in 2019, making it even more imperative that food system stakeholders really dig in now and make the changes that are necessary to achieve a significant impact,” said Dana Gunders, ReFED’s Executive Director. “What’s heartening is that the amount of wasted food did level off, and actually appears to be declining slightly on a per capita basis. So perhaps we have moved past the point of ‘peak waste.’ But it will take everyone working together to keep the momentum going.”
In addition to detailing the parameters of the food waste challenge, ReFED modeled 42 food waste solutions to determine which were the most effective at reducing loss and waste for each sector of the supply chain and based on key impacts, including total food waste diversion, greenhouse gas reductions, net financial benefits, and more. Implementing these solutions across the food system would cost approximately $18 billion per year. However, this would deliver an annual net economic benefit of $74 billion – a four-to-one return. In addition, each year, it would result in GHG emissions reductions of 109M metric tons of CO2e and water savings of 6T gallons, and it would save the equivalent of 4.3 billion meals for people in need. Over ten years, it would also result in 60,000 new jobs.
Ambitious implementation of these modeled solutions could reduce the amount of surplus food by 21 million tons or 23%. In addition, ReFED has identified 31 solutions that have not yet been modeled, but would help reduce overall food surplus. Although ReFED’s model has a broader scope than what’s included in the national goal, our analysis indicates that significant increases in investment and implementation will be required to meet the 2030 goal of a 50% reduction in food waste.
This Insights Engine update constitutes both methodological improvements and the addition of 2020 and 2021 data, which covers the period that the food system was rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the full impacts of COVID are yet to be uncovered, some of the major shifts in supply and demand between foodservice and retail sectors have been captured.
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