USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) estimates that about 30 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten at the retail and consumer level.
Most consumers are aware of the food they throw out in their home kitchens and in restaurants, but food loss occurs throughout the supply chain. USDA is working to better understand food loss at the farm level and ERS research is an integral part of the process, as ERS adjusts national estimates of food supplies for nonedible parts of foods (bones, peels, etc.) and losses from farm to fork in its Food Availability Data System.
There are several reasons edible crops do not make it to market. In some cases, market prices for those crops may be too low to justify the cost of making additional passes through the field or orchard to harvest crops. In other cases, not being able to find labor to harvest the crops mean that they are left to rot. Finally, since fruits and vegetables ripen at different times across regions, growers may struggle to find buyers for their produce towards the end of their harvest period, as wholesale buyers switch to other suppliers when better quality produce becomes available in other regions.
Food loss is a particular problem in the produce industry, as produce is more perishable than some crops such as grain crops. Overripe fruit that must be consumed within 1-2 days does not enter the wholesale market, and may be marketed directly to consumers at farm stands. In the absence of these markets, overripe fruit or “cosmetically challenged” fruit can end up in landfills or is simply dropped to the ground by field workers during harvest.
Industry and entrepreneurs have come up with various solutions to reduce food loss at the farm level. A market for “seconds” has emerged, referring to crops that do not receive the top grade needed to enter the conventional wholesale market but are still edible. Specialized companies with a mission to reduce food waste have entered the market to collect and deliver to consumers produce that is too big, small, or blemished for the conventional market.
However, when harvested produce is not of high enough quality to be purchased by a wholesaler, diverting crops away from the wholesale supply chain could avoid wasting further resources. In this instance, food loss at the farm level would be preferable to loss at a later stage in the supply chain.
Why do people care about food loss? Food that is grown but not consumed uses resources all along the farm-to-fork chain – in its production, transportation, storage, and marketing. Growing food uses fertilizer, arable land, pesticides, energy, and water; and can degrade the environment through nutrient runoff or effects of pesticides on non-target organisms. In addition, an estimated 11.8 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2017, meaning they lacked access to enough food for all household members to enjoy an active, healthy life.
USDA is working on solutions. Through workshops, research, and other programs, such as USDA and EPA’s call for a 50-percent reduction in food loss and waste by 2030, USDA continues in its mission to reduce food loss and waste with the goal of ending hunger, enabling farmers to financially benefit from all of the crops they grow, and reducing resources spent on growing food that is not consumed. For more information, please see the USDA Food Loss page and an ERS report on food loss at the retail and consumer level.