By John Pappalardo
At a recent conference of people from all over the country (including us) who are working on ways to feed communities with more healthy and local food, by day two the focus shifted in a remarkable way. Talk swirled around a three-letter acronym:
FLW — Food Loss and Waste.
Speakers from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, under the umbrella of the USDA (the United States Department of Agriculture), announced big plans to try to cut down on loss and waste in our food system. For people with experience dealing with the federal government, their approach sounded familiar:
Announce grants, put out requests for proposals, create applications that go on for dozens of pages and are painfully difficult to complete, then award money to organizations that have run the gauntlet and are willing to file scores of progress reports — and hopefully create change.
They presented a big-picture sense of the problem. Get ready to be shocked:
One third of all food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, never eaten. Best guess is 1.3 billion tons a year, almost all in what we call “developed” countries.
Of that, around 14 percent is lost or ruined between harvest and when food is delivered to a retail outlet, meaning in transport.
Another 17 percent is lost or wasted in retail or food service sectors, and in homes. This would be food that gets thrown out at supermarkets, maybe blemished vegetables or meat that expires, vats and trays unfinished and discarded at the end of the day in cafeterias. Then there’s all the food pushed to the back of home refrigerators that sits there until it’s dumped.
Best guess is that 25 percent of the freshwater used in agriculture irrigates and grows food that is wasted.
A lot of this winds up decomposing in landfills, creating around 800 million tons a year of CO2, carbon dioxide, a key ingredient in global warming.
Best estimate of the total annual cost of producing food that is lost or wasted is around $936 billion.
Amazing, right? And heartbreaking, given how many people in our nation and world don’t get enough to eat.
Of course our thinking keeps circling back to fish and fishing, how the seafood industry fits into this.
So far we haven’t been able to come up with any hard figures, but we have a few ideas:
When it comes to wild-caught fish, what our fleet is famous for, of course there is no freshwater used to grow or catch (other than ice to preserve at sea), so that’s a big plus. Our guess is that in our industry waste (and water use) comes mainly during processing, whether we’re using as much of the whole fish as possible vs. just clean fillets. And then of course fresh fish that’s not consumed within a few days will spoil. We also suspect that we lose much less good food in transport than big agricultural operations.
When it comes to shellfish, many of the same ideas apply. We also don’t know whether people would consider shells to be “waste.” Given that no one could ever eat them we hope not, plus there are plenty of creative uses for shells ranging from packing driveways to adding nitrogen to soil to rebuilding productive reefs.
We’re going to do some more work and research on this, and try to track down a better idea of the seafood industry’s overall performance as far as FLW goes – maybe we’ll change the acronym’s meaning to Fish Loss and Waste! Of course I’ll report back what we find.
In the meantime, it might be that this USDA initiative, even with its cumbersome funding mechanisms, could help local fishermen, retail and wholesale outlets, and regional processors upgrade and improve equipment and infrastructure, streamline process, feed more people and make better use of everyone’s hard effort and the ocean’s bounty.
It’s on our radar now.
John Pappalardo is CEO of The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance