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Connect the Drops

Why Food Waste Means Water Waste

About 21 percent of the water that’s used to grow our food is wasted because of the magnitude of food Americans toss each year. A new report outlines four ways to begin implementing solutions that will save food, water and energy. And California can start by passing needed legislation.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Top image: Irrigation water runs along the dried-up ditch between the rice farms to provide water for the rice fields in Richvale, Calif. Jae C. Hong. Associated Press

In recent months, food waste has been put more in the spotlight – with everyone from coffee chains, restaurants, supermarkets, governments and even pro sports teams making plans for cutting down on wasted food. It was even the cover story of National Geographic last month.

From an economic, environmental and social standpoint, keeping food out of landfills is imperative. We waste 40 percent of the food we buy each year while one in seven Americans go hungry, and the global agriculture industry emits one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But there’s another aspect of the food waste problem that gets much less discussion, one that is also critically important to water-stressed California: Saving food equals saving water.

Much of the food we waste is grown in California, and taking steps now – including passing smart policies – to reduce food waste will help the state through our current water crisis and prepare for our more water-stressed future.

In March, a new report from ReFED (Rethink Food Waste Through Economics and Data) details how sharply reducing food waste will also help with long-term water management. The Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent details solutions and actionable paths forward to dramatically shrink wasted food and save much-needed water.

I attended a day-long conference held at Stanford University to kick off ReFED’s Roadmap, and came away with a sense of both the size of the challenge ahead of us, but also the possible solutions and the different groups implementing them.

It starts with understanding where food waste happens, and how that affects water waste. First, let’s note that everyone wastes at least some food. When I took a recent, last-minute trip cross-country, I left two tomatoes at home to rot (that’s about 13 gallons of wasted water!)

It’s estimated that 21 percent of our freshwater use goes to grow food that is wasted. To better understand the magnitude of the food and water waste, the ReFED report notes that if we grew all of our country’s wasted food in one place, “This mega-farm would cover roughly 80 million acres, over three-quarters of the state of California. Growing the food on this wasteful farm would consume all the water used in California, Texas and Ohio combined.”

ReFED’s Roadmap outlines four main areas for solutions to our food- and water-waste challenge, and each of these was detailed at the conference.

Consumers: We’ve been taught to seek out only the most perfectly shaped, totally unblemished produce on grocery shelves, and this expectation sends huge quantities of food to landfill or compost. NRDC is launching a three-year-long consumer education campaign in partnership with the Ad Council to raise awareness among “moms and Millennials” about food waste reduction.

Innovation/Technology: Turning food waste into value will create the incentives that are currently lacking to reduce food waste. At the conference, Thomas McQuillan from Baldor Specialty Foods highlighted the food delivery company’s goal of being food-waste-free by 2017. Baldor will achieve this by partnering with juice shops, livestock producers and waste-to-energy facilities to make use of foods of varying stages of freshness and visual appeal.

Speaking of visual appeal, “ugly produce” is a trend you should expect to see soon, if you haven’t already. Farmers and food retailers are trying to rein in our expectations of produce perfection by embracing “ugly”: Supermarket chains Giant Eagle and Whole Foods are showcasing less-than-perfect produce, and startups and CSA produce boxes are also working to make ugly produce desirable.

Investment: ReFED’s Roadmap makes clear that it’s going to take a lot of money to tackle food waste – as much as $18 billion in investments – but key to success is making it clear that we can make money by reducing food waste.

Nonprofit organization Ceres is also trying to think about how capital markets can help tackle food waste. In partnership with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR), Ceres started engaging its Investor Network on Climate Risk (INCR), a network of more than 110 institutional investors representing more than $13 trillion in assets, around the food waste challenge. Earlier this year a group of investors sent letters to leading food companies asking for information and to engage in dialogue about plans to assess, reduce and optimally manage their food waste. In addition, Ceres member, Trillium Asset Management, organized a shareholder resolution for Whole Foods Market requesting a report on company-wide efforts to assess, disclose, reduce and optimally manage food waste.

Policies: One quick way to make big reductions in wasted food is to fix those confusing “best by,” “use by,” and “sell by” labels, which greatly increase food waste. Standardized date labeling requires minimal up-front investment and offers great potential dividends in waste reduction and cost saving. In California, we even have a policy proposal already on the table for standardized date labels.

AB 2725, introduced by San Francisco Assembly member David Chiu, would standardize food date labels in California so the consumer can easily and consistently understand when a food item is at or past its peak freshness or when it is expired and could be a safety concern. California legislators should pass this bill in order to start moving California on a more sustainable food path.

If we can unite to implement all of the recommendations in the ReFED Roadmap, we will be on track to conserve as much as 1.6 trillion gallons of water per year – an amount equal to 1.5 percent of the nation’s entire freshwater withdrawals – all while cutting our carbon emissions and saving huge amounts of money.

That’s the kind of win-win-win solution that we can all get behind.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

Kirsten James oversees the California policy program at Ceres, a nonprofit sustainability advocacy organization. Ceres also directs Connect the Drops, a network of California businesses seeking smart policies and solutions to ensure a sustainable water future in California.

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