A new book charges that government regulation is the biggest reason for food waste—and that it could have a bigger environmental impact than some of the most polluting industries.
Artisanal, locally sourced, and farm-to-table have become buzzwords in the food industry in recent years. But government rules are making it hard for small producers to operate, says Baylen Linnekin, author of “Biting the Hands That Feed Us: How fewer, smarter laws would make our food system more sustainable”.
Some 40% of all food in America is wasted every year, according to data from a 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study Council. That amounts to about $165 billion per year.
Linnekin, a food lawyer and professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, says a prime example of bad laws making things worse is the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011.
“It’s a lot of a lot of budgeting and very little bang for the buck,” he said. “It’s going to cost $500 million a year but the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] admits that the two key provisions are only going to make food up to 1% to 3% safer. It’s a lot of regulation [and] tough to comply with for small producers.”
There may be positive aspects to regulation—Linnekin cites a federal ban on shark finning—but the negatives often outweigh the positives, he argues.
“Even FSMA has one good provision, which allows the FDA to order a recall of food that’s found to contain salmonella, E. coli, [or] some sort of bacteria,” he said. “We need basic food safety regulations like that that prevent people from actually becoming sick. Rules aren’t generally an awful thing but with FSMA, lots of the rules are terrible.”
Other rules, such as the grading system by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), encourage massive amounts of food waste solely based on aesthetics. So-called “ugly fruit” and “ugly vegetables” don’t get put on American supermarket shelves because consumers mistakenly believe “Grade A” refers to food quality when in fact visual appeal plays a major role.
“Carrots that are misshapen are not considered to be ‘Number 1’ carrots,” Linnekin said. “That can basically cause those carrots to be left in the field rather than picked because the farmer is not going to get the top dollar for that carrot.”
That can lead to devastating environmental issues, he adds. “Often they’re left in the field and that actually contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in an immense way,” Linnekin said. “If greenhouse gases caused by food were a country, they would be number three in the world behind only the United States and China.”
But those hoping a change in the White House will lead to fewer or smarter food laws will have little to look forward to in either a Clinton or Trump administration, laments Linnekin.
“Either way, the FDA and the USDA. have become far too powerful,” he said. “I don’t think Trump is going anywhere near Washington any time soon. But were he to win, I don’t trust anything he says and I don’t I don’t think he’s going to dial back much if anything.”