- The United States was ranked 26th on a list of 67 countries when collectively assessed on three categories — food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture and nutritional challenges. The Food Sustainability Index tool is a project of the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition Foundation. This is the third year it has been produced.
- The U.S. ranked 16th when assessed solely on food loss and waste, 33rd on sustainable agriculture and 45th on nutritional challenges. France was ranked first overall on the index, followed by the Netherlands, Canada, Finland and Japan. At the bottom overall were the United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.
- According to the index, the food loss and waste score is a weighted average of indicators in policies that respond to that category. Sustainable agriculture takes indicators into account in the water, land, emissions and land use categories. And nutritional challenges assess indicators in the health and nutrition categories. Higher scores mean a country is on the right path to tackling the problems in those respective areas.
The U.S. has been declining in its overall ranking on the Food Sustainability Index since the first one came out in 2016. But it is difficult to do a direct comparison since the number of countries being analyzed has grown every year. The U.S. came in 11th overall of the 25 countries measured two years ago. In 2017, it was ranked 21st overall out of 34 countries assessed. This year's index, when the U.S. was ranked 26th overall, examined nearly twice as many countries as it did last year.
The researchers and policy analysts who put the index together said the purpose is to raise awareness about food paradoxes, sharing best practices and identifying concrete solutions to meet the United Nations' 17 Sustainable Development Goals — many of which are linked by food as a common thread.
According to the index, the U.S. has made progress in addressing food loss and waste, ranking 16th of the 67 countries analyzed with a score of 77.70. In sustainable agriculture, the U.S. ranked 33rd, with a score of 68.60. But the ranking shows there is still work to do when it comes to nutritional challenges. The U.S. ranked 45th in that category with a score of 59.50.
U.S. consumers are looking for sustainability from food industry practices and better-for-you nutritious products to keep them healthy. Food companies are adapting to these trends, and many are aware that they need to do so if they want to maintain a competitive edge and enhance profits. As companies continue propose more sustainable and nutritional initiatives, the U.S.'s score could improve in the future and seeing the numbers could incentivize food companies to push for more change.
Food waste is also becoming a more important issue for many consumers who are interested in recycling, reusing and upcycling food and packaging. Consumers are increasingly looking for companies to take the initiative on environmental issues. More consumers have sought out products that are eco-friendly, bringing progress on this front.
But there are still many barriers to sustainability, which are reflected in this score. According to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. consumers toss about 150,000 tons of food each day — or about a pound per person. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates one-third of all food produced globally is lost where it is grown or wasted in retail, manufacturing and consumption.
Nutritional challenges is the area where the U.S. industry has the most work to do. While better-for-you food and beverage is trending, Americans have a long way to come to have a healthier diet. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Dietary Guidelines, three in four Americans have a diet that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy and oils, and most exceed recommendations for healthy amounts of sugar, saturated fat and sodium. For more than 25 years, more than half of the nation's adult population has been overweight or obese.
Healthier food tends to have higher prices, making it more difficult for low-income consumers to access. A report released this year by the Institute for the Future found that food and beverage companies can change this trend through personalized nutrition, better information for consumers, microbiome-friendly dietary options and bringing fresh produce closer to consumers — and putting it on a more traceable level. With the Nutrition Facts label changing to highlight metrics like added sugars and calorie counts, it could also help consumers become more cognizant of how heathy their food choices are.
Despite these growing concerns, it's unlikely food and beverage companies without a global presence are going to care about European assessments of the U.S.'s sustainability performance. The Economist is based in London, and the Barilla Center is headquartered in Italy. Yet those that do a lot of overseas business, or plan to, might want to pay attention to these comparative analyses and do what they can to help bolster sustainability policies to help the U.S. move up in the rankings.