About a third of the planet’s food production—some 1.3 billion tons a year—is wasted, according to the United Nations. That’s double the amount needed to feed all the world’s 800 million people who suffer from hunger. These inefficiencies are tragic for those who go without, and they also bring enormous consequences for economies and the environment.
Smart resource management is key, and improving access to fresh food is crucial to the health of individuals, communities and nations. With this in mind, Sub-Zero launched Fresh Food Matters, an initiative to empower people to think fresh about the food they eat—and to educate and inspire them on the far-reaching impact that food has on our planet, our culture, our economies, and beyond. This article is part one of a two-part series that considers the scope of food waste, and innovative solutions to the problem.
In developing countries, food spoils because of inadequate storage, transportation and refrigeration. In developed countries, food is thrown away by businesses that over-order and consumers who over-buy.
A hydra-headed problem like this has many causes, and requires multiple solutions. Around the world, governments, corporations and entrepreneurs are innovating approaches to reduce waste and combat hunger. Here’s what’s going on from both the individual and systemic perspectives.
The role consumers play in food waste
“Food waste should not be strictly a policy-wonk football that gets tossed around for discussion,” said Mari Gallagher, a community health consultant and researcher. “By educating consumers, we can increase healthy food access.” Consumers are responsible for over 40 percent of food waste in the United States, she said, which means there is enormous opportunity for improvement in this area.
Gallagher identified two primary reasons for consumer food waste. First, consumers tend to buy more food than they need, in part because of impulse purchasing and poor meal planning. Then, with widespread confusion about “use by” and “sell by” labels, extra food that is still good frequently is thrown away.
Fortunately, with better education, consumers can easily make less wasteful decisions. To that end, many public service campaigns, including savethefood.com from the Natural Resources Defense Council, have popped up with tips and strategies to help shoppers save food. In addition, some manufacturers and retailers have recently moved to standardize “use by” and “sell by” labels, a change consumers should see by July 2018.
There is also the problem of the quest for cosmetically perfect products. “An apple in the 1940s might not have been shiny, rosy red or free of small blemishes, yet people happily ate them,” Gallagher said. “Today, apples have been engineered to look picture-perfect in color, shape and size.”
Around the world, 46 percent of fruits and vegetables never make it from farm to table, in large part because of cosmetic preferences among U.S. and European buyers. But this mentality is changing. An “ugly food” movement has gained popularity as consumers seek out ‘imperfect’ produce, and some organizations are reclaiming these fruits and vegetables for food kitchens and other outlets. And some buyers avoid buying ‘perfect’ produce for the specific reason that it might have been grown with harmful chemicals or pesticides.
Whether food is grown organically or not, throwing out leftovers is about more than wasting a meal. It represents a tragic social inequality: some have too much, while others go hungry, even in a wealthy country like the United States.
Overall, 42.2 million Americans—or roughly one in eight—including 13.1 million children, suffer from food insecurity and don’t have reliable access to affordable, nutritious food, according to a report from Feeding America. “Only in the land of plenty can we have the stark, crazy paradox of wasting perfectly good food, and people going hungry at the same time,” Gallagher said.
It’s hurting the economy and our planet, too
Step back from the family kitchen for a moment to take a wider view, and it becomes immediately clear that food waste is also a major environmental burden and economic drain. Waste happens throughout the production cycle, starting on the farm, where water and fuel are used to produce food that is never eaten. In the United States, for example, food waste consumes significant natural resources, including 21 percent of all fresh water and 18 percent of cropland.
Worldwide, food waste accounts for 3.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. The disposal of all this organic waste also has a significant, negative impact on the environment. In the United States, organic waste is the second highest component of landfills, which are the largest source of methane emissions. Methane gas that leaks into the air effectively absorbs the sun’s heat—trapping that heat in the atmosphere and advancing global warming and climate change.
To put those numbers in context: If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest contributor to global warming in the world, according to the United Nations. “Only the U.S. and China emit that much greenhouse gas per year,” said Sarah Vared, interim director of ReFED, an organization that applies economics and data to the problem of food waste.
In addition, all this waste is expensive. The United States spends $218 billion a year growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten, according to ReFED. Some of that cost is borne by households; the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the average American family loses approximately $2,200 per year on wasted food—groceries they paid for but didn’t use.
Fortunately, putting in place systems to address food waste will provide a positive boost for the economy. “Curbing food waste creates jobs and promotes economic growth,” Vared said. In Massachusetts, for example, businesses or institutions that dispose of more than a ton of organic waste a week are required to compost it or in some way divert it from landfills. The infrastructure—such as waste generators, haulers and processors—necessary to meet that requirement has resulted in $175 million in economic activity and 900 jobs, Vared said.
And in the United Kingdom, the Waste and Resources Action Programme launched a national consumer awareness campaign—via web and print communications—that successfully reduced consumer food waste by 21 percent in five years.
If there is a silver lining to this complicated problem, it’s that there are many opportunities—in many sectors—for improvement. And that will benefit individuals, the economy and the environment.
“Because of increased technology, innovation and awareness, I’m hopeful that food waste will steadily reduce,” Gallagher said. “I expect to see more and more nimble entrepreneurs reclaim and sell it, as well as food pantries give it away to those in need. I am also hopeful that we can educate the public about labels, as the greatest waste occurs at the household level.”
The Food Waste Chain Reaction
From production to consumption to disposal, the effects of food waste ripple through the planet. At each step of the food supply chain, we send more greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, and waste precious resources. Here’s how.
On Farms and Tables
A third of all food produced for human consumption (1.3 billion tons) is tossed out each year, worldwide.
Food Waste Leads to Water Waste
When we throw away one egg, we also waste the 50 gallons of water that help produce it. And for each uneaten quarter-pound of beef, 400 gallons of water also go down the drain.
Moving and Dealing with Waste
Fertilizer, pesticides and fuel for food waste transport release additional greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere.
From the Landfills
Rotting food substantially contributes to U.S. methane emissions, a greenhouse gas that is 23x more potent than CO2. Composting helps sidestep methane production.
8% of all
Heating the Atmosphere
Food waste is as harmful to the world’s atmosphere as road transport.