US ranks near the bottom globally for nutrition, sustainability & food waste

US ranks near the bottom globally for nutrition, sustainability & food waste

Perhaps not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless to environmental, health and nutrition advocates is new research that ranks the US dead last, or very near the bottom, out of 25 countries on a long list of food sustainability indicators, including the health and nutrition of the population and land, food access and food waste. 

The 2016 Food Sustainability Index, created by The Economic Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, found the US came in 11 out of 25 overall in terms of nutrition, sustainable agriculture and food waste and loss, and “dead last” among the other “rich, Western economies, such as the Frances, Canadas and Japans,” Leo Abruzzese, global director of public policy for The Economist Intelligence Unit on the index, said at the Food Tank Summit in Washington, DC, earlier this month.

“I’m actually surprised the US did that well. I would have expected it to do worse,” he added grimly, noting that the results are based on a combination of qualitative, quantitative, traditional and policy indicators.

He explained that America’s “two big problems” revealed by the index are obesity and food waste, which, “again may be not a surprise,” he added.

“Around obesity, US was 19 out of 25 on overweight children, next to the bottom on physical activity, next to the bottom on undernourishment and absolutely dead last among all 25 on healthy diets, worst on sugar consumption, worst on presence of fast food restaurants,” he said.

For waste the US didn’t fare much better, coming in a third from the bottom with roughly 30-40% of the food produced wasted. This breaks down to more than 20 pounds per person per month of wasted food.

However, for food loss, the US “actually does fine,” Abruzzese said. He explained that this seemingly contradictory ranking actually reflects well on industry, and less well on consumers because food loss occurs at the production and transport levels, while food waste happens at the consumer level, in their homes.

Finding solutions

While these rankings paint a bleak picture, Abruzzese said the situation in the US may not be as bad as it appears at first blush once policy positions are taken into account.

“US tied for first on policies meant to address these issues,” he said. “So, while the actual outputs were pretty poor, at least we saw evidence at the municipal level, city level and state level, whether at the federal level, USDA and others, that at least these problems seem to be recognized and there are quite a few initiatives underway” aimed at improving the current situation.

For example, to address poor nutrition and obesity, some states, such as Idaho, encourage the use of food stamps at farmers’ market so recipients eat more fresh, nutrient dense foods. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, there are policies in place to support breastfeeding and to encourage physical activity at work. And, of course, on a national level there is the Let’s Move campaign and the Choose My Plate aimed at healthy nutrition and exercise.

As for food waste reduction, exemplar programs include San Francisco’s mandatory composting and recycling, consumer education and redistributive food banks, Abruzzese said. He also noted other pay as you throw programs as influential.

“Our expectation would be, and I am trying to be positive here, that if we did this again in a few years, some of these programs will actually have an impact and we will start to move the needle a bit,” Abruzzese said.

A global problem

The US may be trailing many countries in dealing with these challenges, but it is far from alone.

The index also reveals that food loss and waste is a huge problem almost everywhere, with an estimated one-third of food produced globally lost or wasted, Abruzzese said.

Likewise, sustainable agriculture is a global problem with most countries struggling to balance a declining amount of available land and the competition for that land between food uses and non-food uses, such as for bio-fuels, Abruzzese said.

“And then a third finding that is concerning [on a global scale] is the increase in premature obesity,” he said. “Obesity used to be a condition that occurred mostly in the advanced economies, but now is occurring more often and at an earlier stage in developing countries.”

The good news, Abruzzese added, is that like in the US, all 25 countries recognize the problems and are taking them seriously.

“That gives us some hope that maybe at some point in the future, when the policies begin to kick in, we will see the numbers improve,” he concluded. 

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