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.
Ways to Waste Less
Buy what you need. The first step to wasting less food is to buy less. Much of the food that is wasted in the U.S. and other industrialized countries spoils before any part of it is eaten. So, to cut down on food waste, plan your shopping trips wisely. Check your pantry and fridge, and make a list of what you need from the grocery store or farmer’s market before you go. Avoid impulse purchases, and be wary of buying things you would not normally eat just because of a good sale. Food bought on sale is not actually a deal if it only goes to waste.
Buy produce where itís freshest. Pay attention to country of origin labels on the apples, bananas and asparagus you eat at the store — Mexico, Chile, China — and you will find that much of the produce at big box grocery stores is, shall we say, well-traveled. Fruits and vegetables at the supermarket may have literally gone halfway around the world before landing on your local store’s shelf — and that means the produce you buy at your grocer may already be weeks or months old.
Farmerís market and CSA produce is often sourced locally, and therefore may be much fresher than supermarket produce — which means it will last longer once you bring it home.
Grow your own. Nothing is fresher than food you picked five minutes ago in your own backyard. It does not take much space — or even much expertise — to grow a small vegetable or herb garden. Even those without a yard can try growing lettuce or basil in a container on a balcony or a sunny window sill.
Eat your leftovers. Eating leftovers does not have to mean eating the same thing all week. Before the advent of convenience food culture, most people were loathe to waste leftovers, and such fantastic upcycled food inventions as banana bread and French toast were the result. Look for easy recipes that repurpose excess food — like stews, soups and casseroles — and add them to your cooking repertoire.
Talk to kids about food waste. Between the natural pickiness of preschoolers and the common preteen plague of eyes-bigger-than-stomach syndrome, anyone who has children knows that they can be champion food wasters. There is no need to shame children into cleaning their plates — but if you have kids and want to encourage them to be better at conserving food, talk to them about the problem. Encourage kids to think about how hungry they are before they choose their food, and to take only as much as food as they will eat.
Share what you donít eat. Do not, do not donate spoiled or expired food to a food bank — it will only create more work for the volunteer workers, who will have to sort out inedible foods and throw them away. But do consider sharing excess garden produce with food banks, or donating good, still-fresh food you donít need or care for (say, the box of cookies your aunt gave you that you’re allergic to, or the five extra boxes of Girl Scout Cookies you bought from your co-worker’s daughter).
When you find yourself with excess food that’s about to spoil, and you have no time to make a donation, consider cooking it all and freezing it to use later, or inviting friends or neighbors over for dinner.
Dispose of food waste responsibly. If you must throw away food, try not to let it end up in a methane-spewing landfill. A compost pile is a much better option for food disposal, and if you do have a garden, the compost you create with food waste can be recycled into new, fresh food.
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Photo of food waste by Nick Saltmarsh. Used under Creative Commons license.