Somewhere between farm and fork, Americans waste up to 40% of our food. Organic waste is the single-most common item to end up in landfills; this is an underrepresented detriment to the environment: According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, “in the landfill, food scraps decompose and give off methane, a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more powerful in global warming as carbon dioxide.” The economic costs of food waste are enormous as well. NRDC estimates nearly $165 billion worth of food is wasted annually in the United States alone.
Massachusetts has begun implementation the most aggressive state policy to reduce food waste in the country. Beginning on October 1st, any business or institution that produces at least one ton of food waste every week must now divert that waste away from landfills. These businesses and institutions include restaurants, supermarkets, and universities, among others. This act is filled with positive intentions: reducing the state’s carbon footprint, supporting hunger relief organizations, and producing green energy.
Institutions that qualify under this new law are banned from sending their food waste to a landfill. Instead, they are encouraged to:
a) Reduce as much waste as possible;
b) Donate usable food to hunger relief organizations, such as food banks, shelters, and soup kitchens; and
c) Divert any extra food to composting, animal feed, and biofuel programs.
Because of the emphasis on diverting waste to useful sources, Massachusetts has provided online resources for qualifying establishments to find recycling facilities. The local agricultural economy is supported by the significant increase of animal feed and compost to Massachusetts farms.
Furthermore, diversion of solid waste can go to anaerobic digestion facilities; bacteria process food and turn it into biogas, which is used for electricity and heating/cooling. Biogas is a growing clean energy industry that is saving Massachusetts millions of dollars. In fact, the facility that serves the Boston area is estimated to save the state government $15 million every year because of its biogas production. As part of the food waste ban, the state is offering up to $1 million in grants and low-interest loans to private businesses that start anaerobic digestion facilities. This policy is part of Governor Patrick’s larger goal of reducing the state’s carbon footprint by combining renewable energy goals with waste reduction and economic development.
For the past year, USDA has been encouraging restaurants, supermarkets, and food service companies to take the “Food Waste Challenge” and set their own goals to reduce waste. Several cities have taken the pledge, such as Seattle, New York, and San Francisco. Massachusetts’ new law is different: it signals a transition from voluntary programs to policy mandates. States have the unique power of proposing and enforcing bans on excessive food waste, while simultaneously supporting their agricultural and energy sectors.
In order to make real progress, other states and cities should follow suit and create food waste bans to divert organic waste from landfills and into useful alternatives.
State and local governments aren’t the only ones that can make an impact on food waste. As an issue that reaches every level from farm to fork, many different institutions can make a difference. Consumers should be more conscious about the amount of food they buy and conserve, and supermarkets can develop new ways to package food to reduce waste. For example, a new supermarket in Berlin, Germany, is a new “Zero Waste Supermarket” that sells every item in bulk.
Universities should invest in diversion of food waste to donate or to compost -- or even to start treatment facilities of their own. For example, UMass-Amherst has begun constructing their own anaerobic digester which is intended to take in food waste from campus and surrounding towns and generate clean energy back to campus.
Addressing food waste is a practical way that communities and states can take real steps toward reducing their carbon footprint, saving scarce landfill space, and growing their economies.
ERIC WOLFERT, ENERGY & THE ENVIRONMENT DIRECTOR
GW Roosevelt Institute has voted to support Fossil Free GW and their work to persuade the university to divest all of its holdings in fossil fuels. The Fossil Fuel industry is chiefly responsible for anthropogenic climate change, as well as significant damages to public health. As progressives, ignoring climate change and its causes would betray our work and passion for a future of good jobs and more equitable health outcomes.
The dire warnings regarding the dangers of climate change, propagated by everyone from the Department of Defense to Pope Francis, have often fallen on deaf ears. However, the reality remains heartbreakingly simple: If carbon dioxide emissions, particularly from burning of coal and oil, continue unchecked, the world stands to suffer from increased extreme weather, famine, drought, and devastating hardship, particularly for those in poor and developing countries.
The George Washington University has repeatedly asserted itself as caring about environmental and sustainability issues, and is ranked among the most sustainable universities in the country. Therefore, it must do its part on climate change even as many continue to drag their feet. We should join 13 other universities, a number of cities including Seattle and San Francisco, and dozens of religious institutions in making sure that tuition dollars--the ones we are investing to become future world leaders--are not financing climate change through GW’s holdings in fossil fuel companies. This is far from a radical decision; many have already endorsed such an idea on economics alone. While information regarding just how much money an individual university or other entity holds in a given industry is often difficult to find, we do know that fossil fuel investments comprise 13% of the total stock market in the United States, so it is not difficult to imagine that university investments are substantial. It is a question of simple economics: It is only a matter of time before energies such as coal and oil become less profitable, and other, more profitable and sustainable energy sources will take their place.
Allies of the divestment movement are rightly concerned that divestment from any potentially profitable industry would hurt the university’s bottom line, which could threaten cuts to vital programs, such as financial aid. These concerns are valid, but easily addressed. The market for new energies, particularly solar, is rising at historic rates. Inherently, it is causing coal stocks to decline as citizens continue to switch out traditional fossil fuels for renewable sources of energy, particularly solar. While fossil fuels often give the image of being a reliable economic investment due to their relative ubiquity, a growing body of evidence suggests that this isn’t the case.
This movement can and should find allies across the political spectrum. Liberals and progressives will find divestment desirable for the reasons stated above: a moral imperative to protect the world’s poor and our environment. Conservatives and libertarians should find the proposal desirable as a market-oriented method of mitigating climate change--one that does not require government intervention or mandates. Climate change can be a complicated issue, but our solutions don’t need to be.
ERIC WOLFERT, ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT DIRECTOR
The debate over health care policy has been omnipresent in recent years, particularly since the rollout of the healthcare.gov online marketplace in October 2013 (CBS’ Evening News covered the issue 50 times in two months). However, such coverage, and in turn an overwhelming majority of the healthcare policy debate, is often missing one crucial factor: the role that American energy policy, particularly the country’s overreliance on fossil fuels, plays in giving the United States the most expensive and inefficient health care system among OECD nations. Without properly accounting and correcting for the many health care issues that carbon-intensive energy brings, our health care problems will persist.
The numbers are sobering. According to a peer-reviewed study published in Environment International in February 2013, total health care costs in the United States from fossil fuel usage annually total $886.5 billion dollars. If that number sounds astronomical, that’s because it is--it’s equivalent to a full 6% of the United States’ GDP. This is startling in the context of American healthcare spending, which in 2012 totaled 17.9% of US GDP. The fiscal effects, of course, only tell one side of the story. More important and tragic are the lives lost from such pollution, which by one estimate total 130,000 annually. Much has been written about how the United States, which relies significantly more on private as opposed to government health insurance than do peer nations, spends an enormous percentage of its GDP on health care compared to those nations. While the lack of a single-payer system in America certainly contributes to that fact significantly, the numbers foretell a clear need to transition away from fossil fuels if the United States is to significantly improve health care outcomes.
The most common ailment from air pollution, asthma, now affects nearly 1 in 10 children in the United States, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility. According to the organization:
“This [the fact that children are particularly susceptible to asthma] may be due to their distinct breathing patterns, as well as how much time they spend outside. It may also be due to the immaturity of their enzyme and immune systems, which assist in detoxifying pollutants, combined with incomplete pulmonary development. These factors appear to act in concert to make children highly susceptible to airborne pollutants such as those emitted by coal-fired power plants.”
Asthma’s ubiquity often overshadows how truly dangerous it is. According to a 2004 study of childhood asthma published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease, the year 1996 saw 211 children die from asthma, and their medical bills total over $2 billion. Even though most children managed to escape asthma’s fatal effects, the disease still accounted for 6.3 million missed school days. One does not need to be an education expert to know that each day missed hurts a child’s life chances.
Fortunately, however, a solution already exists in renewable energy, particularly solar power. Pollution-free source of energy such as solar have often been discussed through the lens or preventing climate change, and given the urgency of the issue that is certainly warranted. However, solar energy has public health implications that go beyond climate change. As mentioned above, it lacks harmful emissions of carbon dioxide and other chemicals that have proven severely detrimental to human health. Unlike oil, coal, and gas, it requires almost no water to operate, virtually eliminating the threat of drinking water pollution posed so frequently by more traditional forms of energy. With solar costs consistently dropping even before the severe health care costs that arise from fossil fuels are factored in, switching to solar energy makes more sense by the day.
The deleterious health effects that arise from an energy system dependent upon fossil fuels are well documented and sobering. It is long past time for public policy and funding to favor energy sources that do not cause such harmful effects more fully and consistently.
KIMBERLY CHAN, ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENT DIRECTOR
Last week, the Agricultural Act of 2014 was passed by the House and signed by President Obama. The 959-page Farm Bill outlines reforms of everything related to agriculture and the economy and will run on a budget of $956 billion per year over the next decade. While its passage is being lauded as a great bipartisan effort, the bill contains gaping loopholes that will end up having serious consequences for those at the bottom.
The bill’s major cuts come mostly from gauging food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Citing “abuses” and food stamp fraud, the Bill cuts its $80 billion yearly spending by 1%, and prohibits recruitment activities which “persuade an individual to apply for program benefits or that promote the program”.
However, the bill does not tighten the belt for all Americans. The bill’s expanded crop insurance (Agricultural Risk Coverage) program will be run by “18 companies that are paid $1.4 billion annually by the government” planning to pay 62% of farmers’ premiums. A privacy protection clause in the bill ensures that the premium recipients will not be disclosed.
These reforms play out as a massive contradiction. The government is funding private companies with taxpayer money while taking a chunk of a vital lifeline for 47 million SNAP-reliant Americans. For instance, food stamps cuts would force recipients to consume cheaper, pre-prepared frozen products or GMOs instead of fresh produce. Cuts to food stamps that harm nutrition essentially amounts to a subsidizing of poor diets for millions of Americans, further adding to national problems like obesity and heart disease.
Expanding the crop insurance program while cutting from food stamps is a move that blatantly favours large agricultural corporations, landowners and insurance companies. The generous funding for crop insurance has raised concerns of misuse of non-arable land by groups who can afford it in order to claim extra insurance subsidies. A blurred line between business and politics is also at play here – The Environmental Working Group reports that 23 Members of Congress or their family members benefited from $6 million in taxpayer-funded farm subsidy payments between 1995 and 2011.
At the end of the day, the Farm Bill does little to close spending loopholes or reduce the wealth gap. Of the $40 billion in projected savings over ten years from ending direct payments, $27 billion will go right back into these insurance programs. The current congress is more than happy to claim a bipartisan “win” while leaving to the American people a deeply flawed bill.
Our members watched the State of the Union last night together. Here are some of their thoughts:
"While I was pleased to hear the announcement of an increase in minimum wage for federally contracted workers through an executive order, President Obama must also put in place limitations on the payrolls of corporate executives, which will hold them accountable for funneling taxpayer money into their own pockets. That sort of change will not come from the corporate-controlled White House, so progressives must shift their focus to the grassroots, bottom-up approach."
--Yasemin Ayarci, Chapter President (@DCyasemin)
"Watching the webcast with the corresponding graphs and diagrams, I was glad to see more substantive policy and slightly less rhetoric than past addresses, but some statements on progressive causes still felt shallow. On education, I was very happy to see the backing of a pre-K expansion, but dismayed at the few new ideas presented on improving college affordability."
--David Meni, Vice President (@TheDavidMeni)
"Any congressional action this year on issues progressives care about will depend on passage in the Republican-controlled House. Last night’s speech sought important solutions to our upward mobility crisis once popular with conservatives: education reform, job training, infrastructure, and a tax overhaul. Despite many important issues left unmentioned, the solutions proposed to reduce inequality may have the support necessary get through the lower chamber--and a chance at helping alleviate the many structural economic challenges too many Americans face."
--Zach Komes, Policy Director (@ZachKomes)
"Another beautifully crafted address by President Obama but as a Progressive, I found alarming the lack of any mention about unchallenged rape endemic in the military & his comments on foreign policy were largely anodyne. In fact, the 'Pivot to Asia' was notably absent, unless this is effectively his apparent support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On that note, I wonder when Obama will elucidate the opaque contents of the TPP treaty."
--Francisco Alvarez, Energy and Environment Policy Center Member (@F_J_Alvarez)
"I felt that the President's agenda was too broad and scattered to achieve all, or even most, of the goals that he put forth. If he devoted more effort to a single issue and made that the single crusade of the year, it would have a better chance of actually leading to real, measurable good."
--Matthew Kasturas, Freshman Representative
"While I enjoyed President Obama’s encouraging overall tone about the importance of increasing opportunities for all Americans, I found some of his policy suggestions to be a little vague. For example, although the broad idea of gun control was mentioned, specifics about his gun control platform weren't present, which is disappointing considering the amount of school shootings that have taken place in the last month alone."
--Kinjo Kiema, Freshman Representative (@Captain_Kinj)
"I thought President Obama’s speech had several strong, substantive policy proposals. However, I sincerely hope that his 'All of the Above' energy policy prioritizes renewable sources such as solar and wind, and does not include the Keystone XL Pipeline."
--Eric Wolfert, Outreach Director (@EricWolfert93)
What did you think of the #SOTU? Comment below and let us know your perspective!
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