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Can the U.S. Slash Food Waste in Half in the Next Ten Years?

Food
Farm waste being prepared for composting. USDA / Lance Cheung

By Tim Lydon

Can the United States make progress on its food-waste problems? Cities like San Francisco — and a growing list of actions by the federal government — show that it's possible.


San Francisco passed the nation's first mandatory composting law a little over 10 years ago, requiring residents and businesses to separate food waste for municipal trash collection. The city, which already had an enormously successful recycling program, incentivized composting through consumer education, a scalable fee structure and, as a last resort, penalties. It also streamlined its entire waste collection system by contracting with a single waste hauler. That company, in turn, now delivers food waste to a composting facility that converts it to rich fertilizer, which is sold to California's vineyards and farms at a profit.

The result? Composting has helped San Francisco reduce its annual waste by a whopping 80 percent, taken pressure off local landfills, and reduced the city's greenhouse gas emissions. And the city is now a global leader in municipal-waste reduction.

San Francisco's success has inspired other local governments to take similar action. In recent years a dozen other cities and states have adopted their own mandatory composting laws. Although it's still a growing movement nationally, experts say this composting shift represents an important way that the U.S. can tackle food waste.

Every year American consumers and businesses waste hundreds of millions of pounds of food. The EPA estimates that about 22 percent of the foods we produce end up in landfills, with another 22 percent burned for energy. This contributes to climate change and a host of other environmental and humanitarian issues.

Congress agrees on the national value of community composting as one element of solving this problem. The 2018 Farm Bill, which passed a little over a year ago, created a fund for new composting programs.

It was one part of an unprecedented suite of actions in the Farm Bill designed to curb U.S. food waste. The actions encourage systemic change in the country's food system and support an ambitious government goal to slash domestic food waste by half in the next decade.

The Obama administration established that goal in 2015, and it continues today under the Trump administration. It mirrors a United Nations goal to halve food waste globally by 2030.

In the United States, the broader effort is spearheaded by the EPA and the Department of Agriculture. With help from the Farm Bill, the country now seems poised to bring about meaningful change.

However, experts caution that continued progress will depend on continued support from Congress and solid commitments from industry, government, nonprofits and even consumers.

The Promise of Reducing Waste

No matter which way you slice it, food waste is a significant issue. In the U.S., up to 40 percent of all food is tossed in the garbage. It's more than just the uneaten food you scrape off your plate. Food waste happens at every stage of production, from vegetables rotting on the vine to dumpsters full of unsold fruit and meat at your local grocery store.

"Our food system is operating with a 40% inefficiency," said Katy Franklin, operations director for the nonprofit ReFED, a leading resource for food-waste research, data and solutions design. The organization works in support of both U.S. and UN waste goals.

It comes with a huge cost for the climate: This waste represents an enormous use of fossil fuel to grow, ship and refrigerate food that no one will ever eat. And as food products decompose, they release methane, a greenhouse gas with many times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide. Nearly all discarded food in the U.S. ends up in landfills, where it produces up to 14 percent of our country's methane emissions.

Looking at production, distribution and disposal, the United Nations estimates that excess wasted food generates a full 8 percent of worldwide global carbon emissions.

If food waste were a country, it would be the world's third-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the U.S.

And the waste contributes to a host of other problems, including deforestation, pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, and human-rights issues from forced labor or food inequality.

But recognizing that problem also creates the opportunities for improvement. Tackling food waste, Franklin points out, "can be a huge part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions" and solving other problems.

Franklin and others see a lot of reasons for optimism, especially the 2018 Farm Bill, the most important elements of which are just starting to take effect. Top food-waste experts at ReFED and the Harvard Law School's Food Law and Policy Clinic collaborated on recommendations for the bill, which were mostly accepted by Congress.

"It was satisfying and really thrilling to see the bill provide both funding and intellectual investment in the issue," said Franklin. "That's a magical combination."

The Farm Bill Creates Leadership

While the Farm Bill put a range of programs in motion, three specific elements showcase the systemic changes needed to achieve serious cuts in food waste.

First, the law set the stage for the creation of a high-level "food-waste liaison" under the Secretary of Agriculture, with specific duties for researching and cutting waste. Franklin calls the new position an exciting signal of government leadership, which can help galvanize participation throughout the business, consumer and government sectors. While the 2018 Farm Bill did not pay for this new position, preliminary funding was included in the 2020 appropriations bill that passed in December 2019. The provision was inserted in both bills by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who in 2018 also launched Congress' first-ever Bipartisan Food Recovery Caucus and has introduced other bills to curb food waste.

Until the liaison is hired, many of the duties assigned to the position by the Farm Bill fall to Elise Golan, the USDA's director for sustainable development. She describes the role as a natural fit for USDA because reducing food waste addresses the department's focus areas, including agriculture, nutrition, food safety and the environment.

Golan's office is presently determining the best methods to define and measure U.S. food waste, an early task the Farm Bill laid out for the liaison.

"We need benchmarks to generate good statistics," she said, "but even more importantly they help us identify the drivers of waste at every level, from farms to consumers."

Although some broad national estimates exist, experts say a lack of more specific data limits the ability to track progress in reducing waste across the entire food system. A 2019 Government Accountability Office report reached similar conclusions. The report identified specific data gaps and pointed to inconsistent methods for measuring food waste among government agencies and others as a barrier to progress.

Golan says part of solving that problem requires greater coordination among federal agencies, another liaison role described by the Farm Bill. As an example of headway toward the goal, she points to an interagency strategy signed in 2019 by EPA, USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, which includes a commitment to improving food-waste measurement.

Other roles the liaison may eventually take on, as dictated in the Farm Bill, include raising public awareness, expanding existing programs, and nurturing both governmental and non-governmental partnerships, broad roles that experts say are best served by federal leadership.

Feeding the Hungry

In the second effort at establishing systemic change, the Farm Bill set the stage for removing hurdles that commonly prevent supermarkets, restaurants and farmers from donating unwanted food to charity.

According to the nonprofit Feeding America and other experts, food donations carry enormous potential for reducing waste while helping people in need. But getting companies to donate goods has been a problem. Surveys have shown that many retailers avoid donating surplus food because they fear potential lawsuits over less-than-optimal foodstuffs, even though they'd theoretically be protected by so-called "good Samaritan" laws.

The Farm Bill took steps to fix that problem by clarifying protections established more than two decades ago under the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act. The Act previously offered liability to individual donors, nonprofits and "gleaners" — people who gather excess food left behind on agricultural fields. The new bill expanded that liability protection to cover direct donations by retailers.

The Farm Bill also required whoever eventually takes on the food-waste liaison role to publish additional guidance on the Bill Emerson Act, something no agency has done in the decades since the law's passage.

Experts say weeding out this confusion around liability protections can spur growth in commercial food donations. Toward that end, the Farm Bill also authorizes millions of dollars to help farmers participate in donation programs, especially for the perishables that comprise a high percentage of U.S. food waste. As one of the first examples, this September the USDA rolled out a new program that reimburses farmers for milk donated to low-income families.

More Composting

The third example from the Farm Bill is a new fund to support community composting programs, which provides a total of $25 million to jumpstart pilot efforts in at least ten states.

Franklin and others call this provision especially important.

"There are so many valuable components of food-waste material," said Franklin. "There's really no reason they shouldn't be part of a circular economy that helps produce energy, soil and other products."

That's just what San Francisco's mandatory composting law has done, while also alleviating the burden on landfills and sharply cutting heat-trapping methane emissions.

There's an economic benefit, too, says Franklin. Recycling food often creates more jobs than tossing it. That point holds true in Massachusetts, where recycling food waste supported more than 900 jobs and $175 million in economic activity in 2016 alone, according to a recent report from the state government.

The three Farm Bill examples track well with a "food recovery hierarchy" developed by the EPA and others to guide thinking on food waste. It emphasizes that communities address waste prevention as their top priority, then move through a series of other solutions that include donating, repurposing and composting food, all before the least desirable practice of dumping it in a landfill.

Beyond the Farm Bill

Congress and government agencies are far from the only ones working on food waste. If anything, they're late arrivals in a field where conservation and humanitarian groups have been toiling for years. They include the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), ReFED, Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, Feeding America and many others, as well as hundreds of local food rescue groups that connect unwanted food with people in need. In fact, the Farm Bill provisions reflect many of these organizations' longstanding recommendations.

The groups have helped spur the food industry into action. For example, large retailers such as Walmart began efforts to standardize food expiration labels after a 2013 report by NRDC and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic showed confusion over the labels leads up to 90 percent of Americans to toss perfectly good food. In 2017 they were joined by industry associations representing dozens of major firms, who volunteered to trim the more than ten date labels — including "best by," "sell by," and "expires on" — to just two: "best if used by" and "use by."

The Food and Drug Administration approved their choice of "best if used by" to indicate optimal quality this past May but stopped short of sanctioning "use by" as a marker for when an item could be safely consumed.

Still, ReFED and others point out that voluntary industry efforts are not enough. They say a continuing mishmash of retailer approaches and state food safety laws have prevented the universal standardization of labels. That standardization, they say, is only achievable by federal legislation that includes oversight, comprehensive consumer education, and consistency between state and federal laws. That may still emerge: In 2019 Rep. Pingree of Maine introduced label reform legislation that matches ReFED's recommendations.

But as label reform shows, major industry players are coming to the table to help fight food waste. The EPA and USDA encourage their efforts through the 2030 Food Waste Champions program, which highlights companies working toward the government's 2030 goal. Members include Walmart, Campbells, Kellogg, Kroger and more than 20 other large retailers. Although the program is voluntary and doesn't require independent verification, highlighting again the need for better overall measurement standards, supporters argue it incentivizes companies to reduce waste.

"We've been lucky," said Franklin, "because reducing food waste has a lot of appeal among businesses right now."

But as Franklin says, unexpected events or market shifts could temper efforts at any time. She also points to the need for greater consumer education, as she's regularly reminded that most people remain unaware of the food-waste problem.

But she sees promising work there, too, and highlights the World Wildlife Fund's Food Waste Warrior toolkit for school teachers. Similar experiential education is also included in a bill Rep. Pingree and others introduced in January, which would initiate a new federally supported food-waste program in schools.

Taken together, all of these examples show legislators, agencies, nonprofits and industry collaborating to tackle food waste, with growing coordination around the government's 2030 goal. Experts say such coordination is necessary for solving America's — and the world's — food-waste problem.

Ultimately consumer behaviors also need to change, but once again we can look to San Francisco for proof that this can work. Once the city government and industry put in place tools and incentives, consumer behaviors followed.

Franklin calls it a matter of fitting all the puzzle pieces together — and it's almost like assembling a recipe to reduce food waste.

Experts agree we're still a long way from meeting our 2030 goal, and caution that the years ahead will show if continued coordination and investment keep us moving forward, but they also say the hunger for solutions is another sign of progress.

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.