Food waste is a climate threat hurting agriculture, say Democratic lawmakers

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by Jared Strong

People need better food packaging guidance to decide if their foods that might have been languishing on refrigerator shelves or cupboards are still safe to eat, members of the U.S. House Select Committee on the climate crisis and its witnesses.

“The ‘use by’, ‘best before’, ‘sell by’, ‘enjoy by’, the many words you see to describe dates on food are actually quite confusing to consumers, and consumers misinterpret these dates to signify that they are supposed to throw that food away,” said Dana Gunders, executive director of ReFED, a national organization that studies food waste.

An estimated 30-40% of food in the United States is wasted, and the issue is complex because it goes far beyond people throwing away the food they buy. There is waste throughout the production and distribution processes, starting with crops that are not harvested.

But Gunders, in his Friday testimony before the committee, said standardized food labeling and a national awareness campaign would have an immediate impact.

The US Food and Drug Administration does not generally require dates on food labels – it does for infant formula – but it has worked in recent years to support the use of “best if used”. par” on labels to indicate when food is still high quality.

Gunders said it should go further: have a date for quality and one for safety.

His testimony was part of the committee’s discussion of food waste, which is part of a broader review into tackling man-made climate change. Previous hearings have covered methane pollution, energy efficiency, power generation and others.

The food waste discussion followed reports on Thursday that US Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, does not support major climate legislation – which includes incentives for wind and solar power generation – that has been negotiated since last year.

Friday, however, Manchin left open the possibility that the Senate could approve important climate legislation.

This legislation is crucial to President Joe Biden’s goal of halving greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, and Manchin’s vote is essential for its passage in the Senate where the Republicans hold half the seats. The deciding votes are cast by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Lawmakers and Biden have said they won’t give up, regardless of Manchin’s support. “…we need to move forward and use every tool we have to solve the climate crisis,” U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, D-Florida, who leads the committee, said Friday. “The costs of inaction are too high.”

Biden has said his administration will act unilaterally to address climate issues if legislative inaction continues.

“If the Senate does not take action to address the climate crisis and strengthen our national clean energy industry, I will take strong executive action to respond at this time,” Biden said in a written statement Friday. “My actions will create jobs, improve our energy security, strengthen domestic manufacturing and supply chains, protect us from future oil and gas price hikes, and fight climate change.”

Agriculture accounts for about 11% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. About half of these emissions are nitrous oxide from croplands that are fertilized or have crops that work with bacteria to produce nitrogen.

About a quarter of agricultural emissions is methane – a potent greenhouse gas – which is belched by cows. About 12% of emissions come from livestock manure.

Wasted food is the largest type of material that is transported to landfills, according to the FDA, and landfills are a major source of methane.

“The food supply chain contributes to and is affected by rising emissions and climate change,” said U.S. Representative Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, a committee member.

She and others have attributed heat waves, wildfires, severe storms and other disasters that have caused billions of dollars in crop damage to rising global temperatures.

In Iowa, a warmer climate is believed to be causing a change in precipitation patterns that have the potential to create large disparities in available soil moisture, with some areas very wet and others very dry.

Biden pushed “climate-smart agricultureto help change the agriculture industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and Republican members of the committee on Friday chastised potential criticism of farmers for their contribution to climate change. They specifically cited the efficiency gains that U.S. agriculture has made over the past few decades.

“The American farmer feeds the world, and here we are trying to criticize them for carbon emissions,” said U.S. Representative John Carter, R-Texas. “That baffles me.”

Several Republicans also criticized Biden for high fuel prices and argued that more should be invested in domestic oil production because the United States has tighter controls on emissions compared to other oil-producing countries.

“We can sit here and talk all day — we can sit here and say all these things to make people feel good,” U.S. Representative Garret Graves, R-Louisiana, said of the Democrats’ suggestions. “The truth is that the policies that are being pushed today by this administration are actually causing more damage to the environment.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of the States Newsroom, a network of similar news offices supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

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