The time is now to get serious about food waste. The world produces enough food to feed the entire global population, yet almost a billion people go hungry. We live in a world where one-third of all food produced is either lost or wasted. That’s 1.3 billion metric tons of food produced that goes uneaten.
The United States wastes approximately 40% of the food it produces every year. The European Union estimates it wastes about 50% of annual production. A report commissioned by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the food waste from consumers in rich countries (222 million metric tons) is almost the same as the net food production from all of sub-Saharan Africa (230 million metric tons).According to waste expert Tristram Stuart, all of the world’s hungry (nearly one billion individuals) could be lifted from malnutrition with less than 25% of the wasted food from the U.S. and Europe. More than just the galling inequity of good food going to waste while others go without, the world’s wasted food has tremendous economic, environmental, and social costs.
Food waste costs money. Waste happens at every stage of the food cycle: on the farm, on the road, in the store, at restaurants, and in the household. The food waste of a family of four in the United States represents an economic loss of $1,350 annually. All told, American households waste as much as 25% of the food they take into their homes. The costs of the food uneaten pile up for the average farmer and to society, which face strains on scarce land and water resources to produce food that is all too often not consumed.
Food waste harms the environment. When food is wasted, the resources used to produce uneaten food are squandered. When decomposing in landfills, food waste emits methane – a greenhouse gas over twenty-times more potent than carbon-dioxide. Just this March, the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change made a reduction in food loss and waste one of its seven key recommendations to curb climatic change.
The world is beginning to wake up to the impact of wasted food. The European Commission has set a goal to cut edible food waste by 50% by the end of the decade and the European Parliament has proclaimed that 2014 will be the “European year against food waste.” Last year, the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2011 took a serious look at reducing food waste as an innovation that could nourish the planet.
Each of us can make an impact regarding food waste by:
- Being aware of our waste. Books like Jonathan Bloom’s masterful American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (And What We Can Do About It) detail the scope of the issue. Waste-reduction systems like Oregon-based LeanPath help large-producers track their food waste to manage their waste streams.
- Educating others. Public awareness campaigns about wasting less and proper food handling are poised to happen in the EU’s member-states in the years to come. Our relationship with food is one of convenience and near flippancy, yet the relationship between food and those we serve is often one of survival and a struggle to find sustenance. Make the case for less waste.
- Advocating for understanding. Expiration dates are confusing and labels such as “best-by,” “use-by,” and “sell-by” are often conflated. They have different meanings, yet all too often the same effect, still-good food going to waste due to consumer confusion. We should be aware of potentially wasteful practices while practicing proper food safety.
- Practicing what we preach. Jonathan Bloom, a food waste expert, recommends a few simple steps to reduce your personal waste. For example, repurposing your leftovers and avoiding over-crowding in your fridge encourage creativity in the kitchen and less waste overall.
While some people waste, many others often go without. Hunger and food insecurity are increasing and existing food assistance programs are struggling to keep up with this higher demand. Let’s get serious about tackling food waste as a means to reduce squandered resources, fight hunger, and address burgeoning social, environmental, and economic losses.