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Wasted food is a climate threat that hurts agriculture, experts, lawmakers say

An estimated 30% to 40% of food is wasted in the United States throughout the production-to-consumption process. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals)

People need better guidance on food packaging to decide whether or not their food that might have languished on refrigerator or cupboard shelves is still safe to eat, members of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and their witnesses said Friday.

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

It’s estimated that 30% to 40% of food in the United States is wasted, and the issue is complex because it goes far beyond people discarding the food they buy. There is waste throughout the production and distribution processes, starting with crops that go unharvested.

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

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration generally does not 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 by” on labels to indicate when food is still of high quality.

Gunders said that should be taken a step further: Have one date for quality and one for safety.

Her testimony was part of the committee’s discussion about food waste, which is part of a broader examination about curbing human-caused climate change. Previous hearings have addressed methane pollution, energy efficiency, energy production and others.

The discussion about food waste followed reports Thursday U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, does not support major climate legislation — which includes incentives for wind and solar energy production — that has been negotiated since last year.

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

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

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

Biden said his administration will move unilaterally to address climate issues if legislative inaction persists.

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

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

About one-fourth of agricultural emissions is methane — a potent greenhouse gas — that is burped by cows. About 12% of the emissions are from livestock manure.

Wasted food is the single-largest type of material that is hauled to landfills, according to the FDA, and landfills are a significant source of methane.

“The food supply chain is both contributing to and being harmed by rising emissions and climate change,” said U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, a committee member.

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

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

Biden has pushed “climate smart agriculture” to help change the agriculture industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and Republican members of the committee on Friday rebuked the potential criticism of farmers for contributing to climate change. They specifically cited the efficiencies that U.S. agriculture has achieved in recent decades.

“The United States farmer feeds the world, and here we are trying to criticize them for carbon emissions,” said U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Texas. “It just baffles me.”

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

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

Jared Strong is a senior reporter for the Iowa Capital-Dispatch, which first published this report.

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Wasted food is a climate threat that hurts agriculture, experts, lawmakers say