World Wildlife Fund Sustainability Works

Breads in a supermarket aisle

Hotdogs Don’t Grow On Trees

  • Date: 22 May 2017
  • Author: Pete Pearson

Everyone asks, why does WWF care about food waste? Answer: There is a direct connection between food production and biodiversity. How and where we produce food has a direct impact on our planet and the wildlife we share it with. Think of it this way: this summer you’ll probably host a BBQ. Every hamburger, hotdog and all that potato salad you throw in the trash represents not just a waste of your money, but a waste of the energy, water, soil and wildlife habitat that was sacrificed to grow, store and transport that food to your local grocery store.

According to our most recent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Plowprint Report, as we expand agriculture to produce food and fuel, the Great Plains are losing more acres of grassland habitat to conversion than the Brazilian Amazon. The cost of expanding agriculture is compounded when we toss wasted food in landfills where it’s buried and creates methane gas. We minimize the methane gas release by utilizing anerobic digestion and/or composting, but given current technology, you can’t recycle all the resources and energy embedded in our food. More importantly, once habitat is converted to agriculture, it’s very difficult to get it back.

Preventing food waste must be our shared cultural norm. The problem is, some of the largest consumers of food – businesses, schools and government agencies – don’t know how much food they’re wasting. We need these institutions to take a leadership role and make the cultural changes necessary to reduce food waste by promoting the importance of measuring and reducing waste. One must see it to believe it.

Waste Reduction Is Business 101

Everyone – consumers, businesses and producers – accept that saving money is a good thing. A recent report from Champions 12.3 outlined the business case for reducing food loss and waste. For every dollar a business invests in food waste reduction, they get $10-$14 back. Not a bad return.

Bottom line – waste reduction is good for business. Of course institutions must be smart about how waste reduction programs are implemented. Any program that increases labor cost or waste diversion expenses is usually a deal breaker. WWF’s strategy is to collaborate with entire sectors that are serious about creating cultural norms that institutionalize food waste prevention. Our work with the hotel sector is a perfect example of how an entire industry is trying to change its collective mindset. It’s now an accepted practice to hang your hotel towel on the bath rack, saving water and energy by reducing laundry services each day. We want to model that same principle and are working with the hotel industry on a pilot program and campaign to institutionalize food waste prevention.

We’re also piloting a food waste prevention program with schools, in effect, turning the cafeteria into a classroom. WWF has developed a fun and engaging curriculum in collaboration with educators like Melissa Terry at the University of Arkansas that explains the connection between food and wildlife conservation. Melissa helped to author the USDA’s Student Food Waste Audit guide which encourages schools to start reduction efforts. Schools that signup through the Environmental Research Education Foundation’s SCrAP program and complete a cafeteria food waste audit will receive a WWF lesson plan and classroom materials. Many schools from across the country have already participated.

Imagine institutional workforces conditioned to see green buckets full of food waste not as an opportunity for composting, but as an opportunity to better understand food waste prevention. Food should never be landfilled, period. However, we don’t grow food to compost it and businesses don’t buy food to put it into an anaerobic digester. We grow food to feed people.

Changing Our Collective Food Culture

The good news: there is growing awareness of the estimated 63 million tons of wasted food in America. Most folks agree that “waste reduction” is a good thing and the progress being made is exciting. The NRDC and AdCouncil launched Save the Food, a public awareness campaign that provides tips to consumers on how to reduce food waste. NRDC also teamed up with Harvard  to publish a new report outlining suggestions for improving food donations nationally. We have a national food waste resource hub called Further with Food. And there’s even software and apps like LeanPath and Winnow that are enhancing the ROI potential of waste reduction. Finally, ReFED recently published a new Innovator Database and a Food Waste Policy Finder. We are collectively making progress.

In the final analysis, the food waste problem will require changing our collective food culture to one that is focused on waste prevention. We need an institutional re-evaluation of food and its importance to our planet. When institutions are actively separating, measuring, and trying to reduce the amount of food they compost, you’ll start to see a fundamental shift in our food norms.

Food is sacred and its cultivation represents perhaps the most important human relationship we have with our planet. We can all make a difference by not wasting it.