If wasted food were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses on the planet behind China and United States. And yet, one in four people around the world—including 42 million Americans—don’t have enough to eat.
Something’s rotten, and it’s not just the spinach-turned-science experiment fermenting in the back of the fridge.
As principal investigator of a new five-year, $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—the largest externally funded award in AU history—environmental science professor Sauleh Siddiqui aims to put a fork in wasted food. The project—Multiscale Resilient, Equitable, and Circular Innovations with Partnership and Education Synergies (RECIPES) for Sustainable Food Systems—examines myriad impacts of wasted food in “the most AU way,” Diana Burley, vice provost for research, says: “across disciplines and through the lens of social equity.” RECIPES draws on the diverse expertise of 40 faculty from 14 institutions, including seven other AU professors, to tackle a global crisis that’s costing us our environment—and $1 per person, per day in wasted food.
“Instead of looking at the food system as a linear system where we plug gaps of waste in a straight line, we’re seeking to transform it into a more circular system where we can reduce, reuse, and valorize all of the food that gets wasted,” Siddiqui says.
That transformation “exemplifies the impact that AU has on the world’s most pressing problems,” says President Sylvia Burwell. “Our expert scholars bring unique interdisciplinary approaches to critical challenges and create knowledge that translates into action. The NSF grant continues our leadership in sustainability and builds on the change we know can’t wait.”
According to Siddiqui, our food system is as simple—and as complex—as a can of tomatoes.
Fifteen ounces of vine-ripened tomatoes are peeled, diced, seasoned, sealed, and shipped to the local market where they’re purchased and placed in the kitchen pantry. “But when you open that can,” he says, “you have zero idea where those tomatoes came from, where the aluminum came from, how many places it traveled to get to the shelf in your grocery store, or how many people have touched it.
“The food system is essential to our daily lives, and it cuts across so many aspects of our society—yet we know relatively little about it.”
We do know that wasted food is bananas (9,513 of which are thrown away every minute in the US).
About half of all produce is wasted, according to the National Research Defense Council (NRDC). Roughly 20 percent is lost during production, often for aesthetic reasons, and 12 percent is tossed at the distribution or retail level, with bananas making up the largest chunk of supermarket waste, followed by apples, tomatoes, grapes, sweet peppers, and pears. Another 28 percent of produce rots on our countertops.
The environmental and economic impacts are equally unappetizing. According to NRDC, it takes a 42-minute shower’s worth of water to grow a single pound of bananas. Amid mounting climate crises, irrigation water and cropland are resources we simply can’t afford to waste.
And what’s worse, shipping, trucking, and refrigeration of the world’s most popular fruit contributes up to 67 percent of its total carbon footprint, per the United Nations.
And while bananas are among the worst of the bunch, they’re not the only food Americans find unappealing. Half of all seafood, 38 percent of grain products, 22 percent of meat, and 20 percent of milk never makes it into our bellies. All told, the United States is the most wasteful nation on the planet, tossing 54 billion tons of food a year.
Siddiqui’s plate is piled high with existing data about the food system, but it’s not integrated. The RECIPES team will first synthesize research from government, nonprofit, and corporate sources—then identify what’s missing. They’ll fill the knowledge gaps by conducting surveys, developing models, gathering qualitative insights from ethnographies, and gleaning contextual insights from community members and frontline workers.
The group plans to launch the first-ever undergraduate student science journal on food systems and craft curriculum for elementary schoolers. They will also develop strategies to minimize household-level food waste and evaluate new technologies on wasted food and their integration with regional infrastructure.
“We have assembled a network of researchers that are incredibly committed to the work and who are [eager] to create a new common language around this,” says Siddiqui, associate director of AU’s new Center for Environment, Community, and Equity. “We’re coming to this challenge with a diversity of perspectives. Often in science that’s a problem, but here, it is the ultimate strength.”
In addition to coprincipal investigators from Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, Ohio State University, and the Rochester Institute of Technology, the RECIPES team includes a convocation of Eagle professors: Sarah Irvine Belson, SOE; C. Anne Claus, anthropology, CAS; Jessica Gephart, environmental science, CAS; Kiho Kim, environmental science, CAS, and executive director, Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning; Garrett Graddy-Lovelace, SIS; Stacey Snelling, health studies, CAS; and Malini Ranganathan, SIS. SOC doctoral candidate Tambra Stevenson is among 45 graduate students who will work on the project.
Provost Peter Starr says the groundwork for AU’s groundbreaking grant was laid years ago “by faculty who made a commitment to interdisciplinary research. AU doesn’t separate research and teaching. Faculty go after the pressing issues and have a bottom-up desire to collaborate and the infrastructure to do it.”
That foundation will help the team succeed in the important work ahead of them, Siddiqui says. “We don’t just need engineers working on new technologies to extract value from food, or mathematicians bringing together data to find a good outcome. Anything done in isolation doesn’t take advantage of all the knowledge that’s available.”
Among the RECIPES team, not a morsel of brain food will go to waste.
What a Waste of . . .
- 30 million acres of cropland per year
- 4.2 trillion gallons of irrigation water per year
- 780 million pounds of pesticides per year
- 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per year
- 1,250 calories per person, per day
- 90 billion meals per year
- 108 billion pounds per year
- 43% comes from households
- 40% comes from restaurants, grocery stores, and food service companies
- 16% comes from farms
- 2% comes from manufacturers
- 95% of food waste ends up in landfills, taking up more space than anything else
- Methane generated by food in landfills is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide
- Carbon footprint of wasted food in the US is greater than that of the airline industry
- Greenhouse gases generated by wasted food equal that of 37 million passenger vehicles
- $161 billion worth of food per year
- $400 per person, per year
- 2% of US GDP
Food waste and wasted food are apples and oranges. The latter describes food that was not used for its intended purpose and is managed in a variety of ways, whether donated, turned into animal feed, composted, anaerobically digested, or diverted to landfills or combustion facilities. Wasted food includes unsold offerings from retail stores; plate waste, uneaten prepared food, or kitchen trimmings from restaurants, cafeterias, and households; and byproducts from food and beverage processing facilities.
Like the US Environmental Protection Agency, which adopted the term several years ago, the RECIPES team finds “wasted food” more palatable because it underscores that a valuable resource is being unnecessarily squandered. “We want to put the focus on the waste,” Siddiqui says. “That’s the problem.”