Everyone’s talking about food waste. On the news, our social feeds, and even on some packaging. It’s a mainstream problem now. But why is food waste bad?
Not wasting food is something we probably grew up hearing from our parents or our grandparents. Personally, my grandparents grew up during the Great Depression, so this concept of clearing your plate or saving the last bit of ketchup from the bottle was ingrained in my head. Food waste is easy to talk about and resonates with people. But the problem is much bigger than our dinner plates alone.
You might have pieced it together by now that food waste is a key contributor to climate change. Roughly one-third of all food produced globally never makes it to our plates, and that wasted bounty translates to a shocking footprint. In food service, the numbers are even worse! Food waste is an irresponsible use of valuable resources, monetary value for farmers, and lost calories for people facing food insecurity. Global food waste is so impactful to greenhouse gases that it has even been included in the sustainable development goals. Despite its seemingly innocuous nature, it poses a significant threat to both human well-being and economic prosperity. Understanding the causes and consequences of this issue paves the way for individual and collective action to prevent food from going to waste.
Environmental Impact of Food Waste
Ever tossed wilted lettuce or forgotten that half-eaten avocado in the fridge? We’ve all been there. But when those “oops” moments multiply, it carries a surprisingly heavy environmental burden. Each year, a staggering 1.3 billion tons of food simply rots away, guzzling precious water and land resources that could feed millions. (UNEP, 2021). Uneaten food from our plate scraps and grocery stores ends up in landfills and contributes to methane gases, which are 28 times more hazardous than carbon dioxide according to the EPA. Food waste has a large environmental impact. We’re talking about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, equivalent to running 42 coal-fired power plants for a year! (FAO, 2019).
When crops aren’t eaten or go unused, all the resources that went into producing, processing, packaging, and transporting it are also wasted. This includes water, energy, and agricultural inputs like fertilizers and pesticides.
Wasted Water and Natural Resources
Our food system is incredibly complex. Different crops require different resources. Some crops, like corn, require a combine that runs on fossil fuels to harvest. Something like cranberries or rice requires the flooding of a bog or a field, while more delicate crops like tomatoes need to be hand-harvested. From land use to water use and labor, food that is meant for human consumption requires many inputs.
There are also tonnes of food that don’t even enter the food supply chain just based on its cosmetic appearance! Some emerging companies like Matriark Foods are fighting this by taking ugly produce or food waste and converting it into delicious food products like tomato sauce and soups. This upcycling technique is a great way to ensure fresh food doesn’t go to waste.
Meat is one of the worst offenders of using high amounts of water for production and agricultural emissions, which is why spoilage is so much more impactful. When food is wasted, all the water used to grow, process, and cook that food is also wasted. Reducing food waste can conserve farming on acres of land, natural resources, labor, and edible food.
Food Waste Impacts Hunger and Food Insecurity
The unfortunate reality is that approximately 820 million people worldwide are food insecure. In the United States, 11% of households (37.2 million people) were food insecure in 2018. This includes 6 million children in American households. This leads to developmental issues, poor nutrition, and health problems. The food waste problem affects rich countries and low-income countries alike.
Food waste is a global issue, yet millions of people around the world suffer from hunger and food insecurity right in our backyard. Food prices keep increasing, making the gap larger. By reducing food waste, we can redirect surplus food to those in need and address the imbalance in food distribution to soup kitchens and food banks. Feeding the hungry with food going to waste is seen as a logical solution, but there’s still more that can be done.
When food spoils in our refrigerator, it’s bad news for the planet and our wallet. Globally, an estimated one-third of all food produced goes uneaten, translating to a staggering $940 billion in economic losses annually. That’s enough to feed the world’s hungry 2.4 billion people for an entire year! (FAO, 2019). Imagine the ripple effect: farmers lose income, resources like water and land are squandered, and the entire food chain takes a hit.
When farmers cannot sell food for cosmetic reasons or maybe even a surplus, our farmers don’t make an income, and they are already underpaid. Some consumer-facing businesses and food companies are shedding light on imperfect produce and encouraging people to embrace them, which creates circular economies.
Think of it like flushing your grocery budget down the drain, only on a massive scale. In the US alone, food waste costs us a whopping $161 billion each year, or roughly $1,363 per household. That’s like throwing away a car every month! (USDA, 2020). By reducing food waste, we can support our wallets and the planet.
With the costs of food rising, food security is a real threat to many. Wasting food while others go hungry raises ethical concerns about social justice and fairness. However, it’s not logical for us to assume that fresh produce can be distributed throughout the world. The vast majority of the one-third of food that’s wasted cannot make it to people who need it. Until we address the problems with food distribution, food waste will continue to be a problem that is both a cause and effect of climate change.
Food Waste Solutions
After looking at the problems with food waste, it’s clear it’s an important issue. So, what can we do? Get creative in the kitchen! Plan your meals, utilize leftovers, embrace “ugly” produce, and compost like a pro. Every bite saved is a dollar earned and a planet protected. Let’s turn food waste from a silent drain to a sustainable gain, one delicious dish at a time.
Here’s the short list of food waste solutions at home on an individual level:
- Composting your food scraps, even if you’re in an apartment
- Buy what you need, avoid buying too much food at once
- â€‹When you clean out your pantry, donate unexpired items to food banks
- Support brands looking to reduce food waste – Organizations like the Upcycled Association fight food waste every day. Check out our Sustainable Brands to support Page for more New brands are emerging to promote upcycling and circular economies
- Donate to organizations that support farmers
Yes it’s bad, but not all bad
Food waste is a sobering picture, but not an insurmountable one. Reducing food waste is crucial for mitigating the environmental impact of food production, conserving resources, addressing hunger and food insecurity, and promoting economic and ethical considerations. It requires individual, community, and systemic efforts to improve food management, distribution, and consumption practices. By taking simple steps like planning meals, storing food properly, and composting scraps, we can become food waste warriors, cutting our impact and lightening the load on our planet. Let’s make every bite count, for our bellies and for our planet.
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