John Oliver Takes on Food Waste on Last Week Tonight (HBO)
Breaking news: In last Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver took on the topic of food waste, citing some staggering figures. Americans throw away $165 billion of food every year, which works out to about 20 lbs. of wasted food per person per month. Almost 40% of the food produced in America is never consumed and instead ends up in landfills.
Oliver breaks down exactly why this is bad:
- Although we throw out vast quantities of food, 50 million Americans still live in food-insecure households, meaning that they struggle to put enough food on the table at some point throughout the year.
- With the drought going on and water more scarce than ever, it’s not only the food itself that is being wasted, it’s the resources put into growing the food and the labor involved in producing it.
- The massive amounts of food filling landfills do not have access to sufficient oxygen when they decompose, meaning that they go through anaerobic decomposition and release methane gas into the atmosphere, one of the main contributors to the greenhouse effect.
He also breaks down why there is so much food waste in the first place:
- There are no federally-mandated standards for expiration dates, so food producers purposely bump up “sell by” dates to encourage shoppers to continue buying fresh products, even though the food would have been safe to eat after that date.
- Farmers and grocery stores won’t even bother trying to sell “aesthetically unappealing” produce because we as a society are ingrained to only trust the most perfect-looking fruits and vegetables.
- Grocery stores purposely overstock produce, because shoppers won’t buy the last item left on the stand, thinking there is something wrong with it.
- The process of donating food is costly to food producers, who find it cheaper and easier to just throw unwanted food in the trash.
- People have an irrational fear of being sued if they donate “expired” food to food banks and someone gets sick from the food, even though there is no legal precedent of this occurring.
One of the solutions that Oliver offers is for the federal government to incentivize food donations by offering tax credits to companies that donate their unwanted or expired food. There have been some programs like this in place, but nothing permanent, therefore making it difficult for smaller companies to plan their finances ahead of time if they don’t know whether or not they will receive tax credits at the end of the year. Earlier this year, a bill to make these tax credits permanent was going through Congress, but it eventually got stripped of all its content relating to food donations and become something else entirely.
Another solution he proposes is for us, the consumers, to do our part by buying “ugly produce.” Companies like Imperfect Produce are trying to get us to do exactly that by working with grocery stores to sell irregular-looking produce at discounted rates.