Dairy farmers around America are living their worst Groundhog Day nightmare right now, waking up each day to make sure the cows are milked and then pouring that milk straight down the drain, into lagoons and sewers, because there’s no place for it to go.
The scale of the food waste we’re seeing is unlike anything in recent history. Nearly 4 million gallons of milk are being dumped every day, according to estimates by the Dairy Farmers of America, the nation’s largest dairy collective. Their friends in the poultry business are staring at an equally depressing, if much different, picture: A growing pile of chicken wings, with no March Madness to feed and rapidly filling storage freezers. A single chicken plant, on average, is now smashing 750,000 unhatched eggs a week in an attempt to lower animal numbers. Elsewhere, millions of pounds of produce are being tilled over in the fields or taken to landfills to rot.
It’s a problem that’s growing as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on, claiming lives and livelihoods with little clarity on when it’ll be safe to come out. All that food being tossed is the detritus that mounds up when restaurants, schools, offices, stadiums and themes parks close indefinitely. The cruel irony, of course, is that so many struggling people around the country could use this fresh food. That they will never see it is a reflection of an American food system that is mighty but labyrinthine: able to bring cheap, fresh milk to your table every day from thousands of miles away, but completely unprepared to cope with a nationwide shift in lifestyle and consumption.
But this staggering waste is also a problem that’s been foretold, again and again, by experts who have been tracking the problem since major industrial shifts changed how our food is farmed and shipped in the mid-20th century. American food waste has been rising over the decades, and researchers think it’s only getting worse, fueled by a combination of inefficient farming in developing nations and individual waste in richer ones. The crisis isn’t just that it’s wrong to waste food — it’s that doing so is a major contributor to climate change, which will worsen natural disasters and economic crises (and likely pandemics) in coming decades.
“We’ve had a wasteful system for quite a while, and our biggest concern with food waste is because of all of the environmental impacts that come with it. Not just when it ends up in a landfill, but there’s a tremendous amount of water that goes into producing food, chemicals, pesticides, land and energy. All of that then gets wasted if no one ends up eating the food,” says Andrea Collins, sustainable food systems specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Watching chicken wings being thrown away is an indictment of not just the complexity of getting food from farm to table — it’s an indictment of how consumer choice has shaped our bad habits, too. And while there are too many directions to point blame, the coronavirus crisis is showing us, in glaring relief, how broken our cutting-edge food system can be. This is the lose-lose-lose scenario: In which there are hungry mouths, broke farmers and environmental harm.
One of the major issues is that there’s no one agency in the federal government that’s tasked with tracking, and reducing, food waste on both institutional and individual levels. The lack of real-time data makes it challenging to intervene, and with so many factors thrown up in the air because of COVID, diverting meat and produce to “alternative markets” (like a food bank or a co-op) becomes harder and harder, Collins tells me.
It seems hard to believe that our industrial food giants can’t deal with, say, the cost of making its machines stuff 10 ounces of cheese into a bag instead of 5 pounds so that it can sell to supermarkets instead of schools. It seems crazy that no one can step in to process and freeze fresh squash rather than just smash it up in the fields. But it’s a massive downside of a food network that brings so much, so cheaply, to so many Americans when market conditions are normal.
“We’re seeing so many of the inefficiencies and the lack of adjustments,” Collins says. “A lot of our food, especially in terms of planting and production requires a lot of thinking in advance. And so those tomatoes that are being plowed under were planted many months ago, thinking that the economy was going to be in a very different place. And even in ordinary circumstances, if a field becomes ripe faster than the contract was projected for, the waste is going to happen because they don’t have any buyer to collect it.”
The biggest reason why fresh food is being dumped is money — many farmers and processors are staring at a situation in which throwing food out saves more money than storing it or giving it away. The cost of harvesting and then transporting food to where it’s needed, rather than where it normally goes, isn’t feasible for farms that have lost massive amounts of revenue. Exporting food to other countries is even more chaotic in the pandemic thanks to currency fluctuations and changing rules. Sanderson Farms, a major national chicken processor, considered euthanizing chickens in order to reduce supply (it ultimately decided against it, for now).
Food banks and other community organizations could try to bridge the gap, but they’re feeling the stress of fewer workers, fewer volunteers and fewer resources in the face of more hungry people and more potential fresh food to distribute. Food banks, in particular, aren’t designed to handle and store fresh food en masse, which means that even well-meaning farmers find themselves at a dead end. “We’re working with the state to try to get it to charities. But quite frankly, a lot of those avenues are full,” Paul Allen, a Florida vegetable grower, told The Guardian. “They can’t absorb it all, no way.”
Developing new partnerships, as Kroger (the largest U.S. supermarket chain) did with institutional food-service companies Sysco and U.S. Foods to share labor and divert unused food, might be a fast way to make changes. But it’s also obvious that government support is required to not just help farms financially, but help fund new pathways for fresh food to make it to struggling Americans during an unprecedented public-health and economic fight. Agriculture companies want the government to buy up their goods, but it can’t just be a bailout; there needs to be a way to fund and protect workers who can get those goods to homes.
Tax credits and other incentives have long existed to promote farms and processors sharing with charities and emergency food networks. Further breaking down complicated distribution channels and loosening contractual barriers would allow farms to work directly with people or entities who have a gap in their food supply, Collins notes.
“The consolidation of our food supply is definitely the heart of the issue, and it’s led to bigger problems — like how we pay food workers, who are often at the very bottom of the pay scale, and who are struggling to make ends meet now, even though they’re deemed essential workers,” she continues. “Because health-care and housing costs are through the roof, people are struggling. If their rent is so high, making food more expensive is going to make it harder. So we need to make these changes all work in aggregate. We can’t just look at fixing the food system without also fixing healthcare.”
In the biggest picture of all, the effect food waste has on accelerating climate change can’t be overstated. The methane coming off rotting produce is 25 times more effective at trapping heat in our atmosphere than carbon dioxide is, and the rapid economic development in India and Africa will lead to more food waste as people gain more disposable income.
So this isn’t merely a story about penny-pinching farmers flushing food because of The Profits®, nor is it simply about how Big Ag and overcomplicated contracts make selling surplus food impossible. Watching chicken wings die in a warehouse and eggs being broken for dog treats is merely the escalation of a sin we’ve been staring at for a very long time.
Collins reminds me that about 40 percent of American food waste comes from households, not farms and distribution, which suggests we need to look hard in the mirror (or the trash can, more likely). Reforming that behavior, not just our mess of a food system, is a key part of confronting the pandemic threat today. The looming danger of climate change in the future, meanwhile, reminds us that it won’t be long before our food system is stressed to the brink, once again.