By Kate Reid
Food waste is a worldwide crisis. It is not just a social problem, but also an environmental problem. The current system is unsustainable and harmful to both people and the environment. Let’s first explore the facets of the food waste problem…
- An estimated 50 million Americans do not have access to enough food (gov) and an estimated 795 million people worldwide do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life (wfp.org)
- Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted (org)
- The direct economic consequences of food wastage (excluding fish and seafood) run to the tune of $750 billion annually (org)
- In the U.S. 31% (or 133 billion pounds) of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten. The estimated value of this food loss was $161.6 billion using retail prices. For the first time, ERS estimated the calories associated with food loss: 141 trillion in 2010, or 1,249 calories per capita per day (usda.gov)
The Food Waste Problem:
At the heart of the food waste problem is a distinct lack of value for food. Dishearteningly, U.S consumers are predominant drivers in this perceived lack of value. As the 7th richest country in the world (businessinsider.com), U.S consumers are exposed to an abundance of low priced food – in fact, they spend a scant 6% of their total household expenditures on food, less than any nation on earth (nclnet.org). The abundance of food, and low prices, are paramount factors in consumer’s lack of value. People end up thinking, that food, like water is an endless resource.
Most food waste occurs in developed countries (56% vs. 44%), which equates to 750-1,500 calories wasted per person, per day compared to only 400-500 calories in developing countries (nclnet.org). And just as U.S consumers are major drivers in the lack of value for food, they are also major drivers in food waste compared to other developed countries. For example, U.S consumers waste ten times more food than South and Southeast Asia (fao.org). Globally, 35% of food waste occurs at the consumption stage, making consumers responsible for the largest volume of waste.
The production and storage stages are however, also responsible for a significant percentage (24%) of wasted food (nclnet.org). We can largely blame the rise of industrial farming for the growing food waste trend, allowing food to become cheaper and more abundant, and removing almost all of consumer’s involvement with production. According to a 2009 PLOS journal article, U.S food waste has increased by 50% since 1974.
Why is So Much Food Wasted?
A big part of the reason the U.S wastes so much food is due to how food is marketed to consumers. Grocery stores and restaurants want to sell more food, and promote overselling with coupons and sales like “buy-one-get-one free” which coax consumers into buying more food than they actually need. Bulk packaging is also a culprit – while it may be more cost effective, most people don’t realize that they won’t be able to get through all they’ve purchased before it goes bad, resulting in waste. And we all know how displays are conveniently set up to lure us into impulse buys.
However, consumers are to blame as well as grocery stores when it comes to food waste, because they set the trends. For example, most grocery stores are forced to stock only the most perfect unblemished produce – resulting in a large amount of perfectly edible food that is thrown out. Pre-made foods that are not purchased are typically thrown out at the end of the day because they cannot be re-sold due to health concerns, along with fragile foods that are crushed or damaged due to overstocking displays.
Food waste also drives up the cost to produce food, by artificially increasing demand and prompting farmers to grow more food than we consume. And while the billions of dollars that the U.S government spends in subsidies to support farmers helps to reduce food costs, it hurts by subconsciously diminishing the value of food (nclnet.org). Finally, the apparent abundance of food discourages waste reducing habits by consumers – what does it matter if I throw out an apple with a soft spot when stores are overflowing with them?
Environmental Food Waste Concerns:
Although a very small percentage of food waste gets composted, the majority of food waste worldwide goes into landfills, posing a major environmental concern. When food disposed in a landfill rots, a significant amount of methane results. This happens due to landfills process for protecting the surrounding soil and environment. Landfills use thin sheets of plastic above and below any waste that is dumped, and this is where the decomposition of organic materials occurs. Because of this trapped environment, greater methane production results, and methane is a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. In the U.S, landfills account for more than 20% of all methane emissions (epa.gov), and food wastes total carbon footprint is estimated to be equivalent to 3.3 billion tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year (fao.org).
Food waste also squanders precious resources like water, soil, and energy. Food production takes up 1.17 billions of farmland, or 51% of land worldwide (nclnet.org). Such land use requires constant irrigation, and its use results in significant topsoil depletion. Besides this, U.S food production accounts for more than 25% of total freshwater consumption and 10% of energy use (nclnet.org).
The most significant resource wasted when food is thrown away though, is likely oil. Oil and gas are used in every part of the food supply chain from the tractors that harvest, to the trailers that deliver, and the garbage trucks that haul waste to landfills. The U.S represents just 5% of the total population and yet uses 20% of the global oil supply (nclnet.org).
Incentivizing People to Reduce Food Waste:
The reality is that despite misconceptions, there is not enough food – not nearly enough. There is not enough food in fact, for one-sixth of the world’s population, the one billion people who suffer from chronic hunger. In 2012, 49 million people in the U.S alone suffered from food insecurity (nclnet.org). We must incentivize people to reduce food waste, and we can do so in a number of ways:
- Educate to Empower Consumer Change: By educating consumers on the food waste crisis we can shift attitudes around how (and what) food is purchased and consumed.
“If we wasted just 15 percent less food [annually], it would be enough to feed 25 million Americans” –National Resources Defense Council
- Waste Less, Save Money: Saving money can be a big incentive for change, and food waste costs American households thousands each year.
“The average American throws away between $28 and $43 in the form of about 20 pounds of food each month” –National Resources Defense Council
“An American family of four trashes an average $1,484 worth of edible food a year” – National Geographic News
- Teach Smart Habits: Learning how to shop smart, stock a fridge properly, correctly interpret expiration labels, and understand when different food items really spoil and why, can help consumers reduce food waste.
“91% of consumers occasionally throw food away based on the ‘sell by’ date out of a mistaken concern for food safety even though none of the date labels actually indicate food is unsafe to eat” – NDRC & Harvard Law
“Consumers who go to the store without a grocery list spend 40% more as a result of overbuying” – National Consumers League
- Sustainable Disposal of True Food Waste: By composting inedible food waste we can keep food out of landfills and ethically handle true food waste. Anaerobic Digestion is another sustainable way to deal with inedible food waste, in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material and produce biogas, which is combusted to create energy.
“If 50% of the food waste generated each year in the U.S. was anaerobically digested, enough electricity would be generated to power over 2.5 million homes for a year” – U.S Environmental Protection Agency
“According to a survey conducted by National Waste and Recycling Association, 72% of Americans do not compost their food waste; however, 67% would be willing to do so if it was convenient in their community” – National Consumers League
- Lobby for Food Recycling: We can also lobby for more food recycling programs, which take edible food deemed unusable or unsellable by stores/restaurants and recycle it. Examples include canning food to extend its life and make it shelf stable, or donating food to soup kitchens or homeless shelters.
“In New York City, City Harvest rescues 50 million pounds of food from restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets, manufacturers, and such that would have otherwise been wasted and delivers them for free to soup kitchens and shelters” – Time.com Article
“From January to June 2015 [D.C Central Kitchen] prepared 914,738 meals for 80 DC social service agencies with 337,721 pounds of recovered food that would have otherwise been wasted” – D.C Central Kitchen Website