Our parents told us not to waste food—urging us to be a member of the “clean-plate” club! Now, several studies have examined the magnitude of the food waste problem and its impacts on the environment. In the U.S., each of us disposes of 200 to 600 pounds of wasted food each year—or 72 million tons collectively. Not all of this is wasted at the plate. Food is thrown out at processing plants, through spoilage at grocery stores, and when too much is prepared at food service establishments and catered events.
Examinations of the food supply chain indicate that 40 to 80% of the food waste occurs at the point of consumption. A least a portion of what we waste at home is put down the kitchen disposal, further stressing sewage treatment (see: https://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/citizenscientist/kitchen-disposals /). To account for our waste, farmers must produce more than we really need, and more food is packaged and shipped in anticipation of wastage. Crop waste in the fields and spoilage during processing and shipping add to the food we waste at home.
One recent study suggests that food waste in the U.S. is associated with 21% of the water used in agriculture (the largest water-use sector) and 2% of our energy use. Food that is wasted required fertilizers and pesticides when it was grown. The land used to grow food that is not eaten could better be left for nature and the preservation of biodiversity. Cutting food waste in half would save 8 to 27% of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere—even more if we were to consume less beef in our diet.
Interventions to reduce food waste could be helpful, but these should be watched carefully. “Best if used by” dates are helpful if consumers are conscious of their purchases vis-à-vis anticipated upcoming consumption. These dates are counter-productive if producers shorten the interval, so consumers buy new food and throw out outdated food without regard to its real danger.
Nevertheless, interventions at the consumer level seem best. Farmers, producers, and shippers will quickly respond to changes in demand for their products.
Clark, M.A. et al. 2020. Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5 C or 2 C climate change targets. Science 370: 705-708.
Gunders, Dana. 2015. Waste-free Kitchen Handbook. Chronicle Books, San Francisco.
Leclere, D. and many others. 2020. Bending the curve of terrestrial biodiversity needs an integrated strategy. Nature doi: 10.1038/S41586-020-2705-7
Read, Q. and 8 others. 2020. Assessing the environmental impacts of halving food loss and waste along the food supply chain. Science of the Total Environment doi 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.136255
Shepon, A., G. Eshel, E. Noor, and R. Milo. 2018. The opportunity cost of animal based diets exceeds all food losses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115: 3804-3809.
Springmann, M. and 23 others. 2018. Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits. Nature 562: 519-525.
2 thoughts on “Food Waste”
As always your topic is timely and well stated. What is the moral of this story? That we all need to consume less, consume nutritionally better, and avoid processed foods, which by definition, use great amounts of energy to process and package.
These are things that all of us can do now without any government mandate or rule. Just good ‘ole personal responsibility.
Keep up the good work.
I am really glad you brought up the issue of food waste, it is indeed a relevant and serious part of the plant-environment-health conundrum of modern life.
Three points I would make that are rarely if ever made in the context of food waste yet I think change or impact the conversation profoundly are, first, how appearance and palatability are major factors in this calculation, secondly that so much of the food we consume and which is made available to us through the current system of comestible acquisition is really not food, or at least the negative impacts of consuming them outweigh the nutritional benefit, and finally, that there is so much truly good, edible, easily available food that is outside of the commodification of food (Gardens, backyards, fence lines, roadsides, woods and pastures, and the wild undeveloped areas surrounding us, with weeds, home grown fruits and vegetables, trees bearing fruits and nuts which go unharvested, and wild edibles) that go to “waste” as unconsidered food sources.
The first point goes to why so much of the “food” in our stores and restaurants is either made devoid of healthy fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients (to remove bitterness, toughness or lack of juiciness) or has so much added sugar, salt, saturated and trans fats, artificial flavors, colors, binders, excipients, preservatives and etc., plus pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics, that they are not a healthy food choice. But it also goes to why so much of the truly healthy roots, stems, leaves, flowers, seeds, nuts and fruit that are abundantly available in our outdoors environments do not get eaten or even considered as a food source.
If you want to say that the food growing outdoors outside of the food industry is too bitter or tough, and not sweet, savory or juicy enough to be realistically considered part of our food supply then you also have to accept that so much of the stuff sold and prepared for us as food is not really nutritious or is so unhealthy it should not be eaten for the purpose of feeding our bodies as food, for exactly the same reasons. And you should also expect that 40-80% of food waste would happen at the point of consumption due to poor appearance or unpalatable qualities. So to change these realities it seems we have to address our fundamental perception of what is good looking and/or palatable food.
Finally I would like to point out that wealth inequalities and lack of access to the means of food production (land, equipment, fertilizers, irrigation etc.) is a major factor in this because those who are hungry do not waste nearly as much as those of us who are well off enough to afford to buy and throw away so much, while hunger and malnutrition exist to such a great degree because the people who suffer just don’t have the resources to grow their own food. If they did there would be so much more food produced and consumed and so much less wasted per capita.
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