The Natural Resources Defense Council released a report this month examining the food chain's inefficiencies, including losses on the farm and in the household, finding that more than 20 pounds of food per person per month is wasted in America.
The study, "Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food From Farm to Fork to Landfill," found that 2% of grain, 3% of meat and 3% of milk is lost during production. An estimated 20% of fruits and vegetables are also lost.
Further, 2% of grain, 2% of meat and .25% of milk is lost through handling and storage or postharvest causes. The highest loss percentages, however, lie with the consumer. The study estimates that 27% of grain products, 12% of meat and 17% of milk is wasted by the consumer.
The study says food lost on farms falls into two categories: food that is never harvested, and food that is lost between harvest and sale.
"Given the variation and risks inherent to farming, it is difficult for farmers to grow exactly the amount that will match demand. In addition, growers may plant more crops than there is demand for in the market in order to hedge against weather and pest pressure or speculate on high prices. This further lowers prices in bumper crop years, leading to more crops not warranting the cost of harvest," the report explains.
Labor shortages and food safety scares can also lead to losses in farming. The group estimates that 32% of the tomato crop was lost in 2008 following a salmonella scare that was eventually discovered to be unfounded. And, limited labor could mean limited harvests.
An estimated 15% of wheat is left unharvested, while 6% of fruit and other vegetables are left unharvested, according to the NRDC. This accounts for at least 97,000 acres.
NRDC says tax credits in Arizona, Oregon and Colorado are now helping to curb losses by donating to state food banks. The increasing popularity of farmer's markets is also easing losses by allowing growers to sell good-quality products that may not appearance criteria as specified by retailers.
Food loss continues into other parts of the food chain, including packaging, grocery stores, restaurants and households.
The study explains that sell-by dates, overstocked shelves and prepared foods are the largest contributors to food waste at grocery stores. In the United Kingdom, grocers have already began to experiment with loss control by ethylene-absorbing technology to produce shelves, improving forecasting for promotional items or running "buy-one-give one-free" programs.
To address the problems explained in the study, NRDC recommends the U.S. government conduct a study for food losses within the food system. They say key actions should include clarifying date labels, proper meal planning, using leftovers creatively and implementing public awareness campaigns.
"Americans can help reduce waste by learning when food goes bad, buying imperfect produce, and storing and cooking food with an eye to reducing waste," the study says.