One third to one half of all food produced in the world goes to waste uneaten, according to data recently collected by the Natural Resources Defense Council and presented this month at the 2012 Reuters Food and Agriculture Summit. The NRDC plans to release a full report on food waste in April.
The NRDC’s agricultural experts aren’t the only ones sounding an alarm about the global problem of staggeringly excessive food waste. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average American throws away 33 pounds of food each month — that’s nearly 400 pounds each year. Food waste makes up nearly 14% of American families’ trash. Americans toss more food in their garbage cans than plastic products. This waste includes both leftover cooked foods, and food that was purchased but allowed to spoil without being eaten. The foods most commonly discarded without ever being eaten include fresh produce, eggs and fish.
But households aren’t the only source of food waste: farmers, packaged food producers and retailers all waste edible food, too. Farmers may throw away excess produce that cannot be sold; food process may discard edible byproducts; grocery stores often reject or discard produce with minor defects. And at any point along the food supply chain, failure to deliver food promptly or store food properly may lead to spoilage.
Food Rots While Millions Go Hungry
Meanwhile, The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that 925 million people went undernourished in 2010 alone. And hunger is not a problem restricted to developing countries: last year, an estimated 1 in 4 American children lived in households where food was not always available, and 1 in 5 Americans sought food aid through the federal food stamp program.
Food Waste Harms the Environment and Contributes to Climate Change
Agriculture and food production are highly energy-intensive industries. Industrialized farms use petrochemicals to fertilize soil, and fossil fuels to power farm equipment. Transporting food from field to plate consumes even more energy. According to the a report issued by the UN FAO in November 2011, the food sector accounts for nearly 30 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Wasted food, essentially, is wasted energy.
And wasted water, too: the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that agriculture accounts for roughly 70 percent of human water consumption.
Beyond the substantial environmental impact of the wasted energy and water represented by wasted food, food waste contributes significantly to global climate change when it decomposes in landfills.
When left to decompose in natural conditions or in a compost pile, food waste naturally releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But under unnatural landfill conditions, in the absence of air, most food waste undergoes anaerobic decomposition, which results in the production of large amounts of methane gas instead. Though both carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases that can contribute to climate change, EPA scientists estimate that methane gas is 20 times more efficient at trapping the sun’s heat than carbon dioxide — making excess methane much more dangerous to the climate than excess CO2.
Landfills are currently the third-largest source of methane in the United States, producing more of the dangerous greenhouse gas than coal mining or crude oil production. And much of the methane in landfills comes from decomposing food waste.
The good news is, there is a simple solution to this problem that almost every person who eats can easily participate in: waste less food.
Photo of food waste by Nick Saltmarsh. Used under Creative Commons license.
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