Food Waste and Its Environmental Impact

By Sehrish Sarosh Haider

reviewed by Amadou barrow

When we hear about food and its impact, we automatically think about how it impacts our health. However, there are various ways in which food impacts our surroundings, especially how we consume food and how it is wasted. 

Every year around one-third of the food produced globally goes to waste. To put that into perspective, about 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year. 

 

Food waste facts

According to the 2011 Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report:

  • If food waste were a country, it would be the third-largest producer of greenhouse gases (GHG) after the USA and China.
  • 8% of the greenhouse gases produced are caused by food waste.
  • The EU wastes about 88 million tons of food each year.
  • Australia wastes about 7.3 millions tons of food each year.
  • Each Canadian household wastes 83kg of food annually per person.
  • Almost half of the fruits and vegetables produced globally are wasted.
  • In the US, the average person wastes about 107 kilograms of food each year.

 

To understand the ramifications of food waste, we have to go step by step. First we must look at how food is produced.

 

Food production and its impact on the environment

In order to understand food waste, we have to understand how food production impacts the environment. Food production is responsible for about 26% of global carbon emissions.  Livestock and fish farms account for 31% of that; cattle, for example, produce methane as a by-product of their digestive process. Crop production accounts for 27% of GHG emissions, which includes crops produced for animals. Nitrous oxide is released when fertilizers are used on crops; rice production also produces methane. Nitrous oxide and methane are greenhouse gasses and harmful agents to the environment. Land used for livestock emits 16% of food production-related emissions, while land used for human food production uses about 8% — this includes Savanna burning and soil turning to make land more suitable for farming. Supply chains, including transporting, processing, refrigerating, and packaging food, account for 18% of food-related emissions. 

 

How is food wasted?

There are two types of food waste — avoidable and unavoidable. Unavoidable food waste comes from the materials that we cannot use – such as banana peels or egg shells. Avoidable food waste describes food which was edible at some point, but has now gone to waste. Around half of all food (including both avoidable food waste and unavoidable food waste) is wasted during production, handling, or in storage. Some of this is inevitable – we can’t control how the weather affects crops, after all. Some can be remedied: for example, when produce is less expensive than the labor and transport costs, farmers will leave it “unharvested” – a pattern otherwise known as “dumping.” In the USA alone, 20 billion pounds of food is lost from farms each year. An additional two billion pounds of food is wasted during processing and manufacturing. 

Food is wasted because sometimes it’s not cosmetically acceptable or aesthetically pleasing. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that supermarkets lose $15 billion with just unsold fruits and vegetables. A lot of it is thrown away just because of cosmetic defects. 

We all have been guilty of putting back a banana with brown spots or with a cucumber that is deformed. So next time you see a bad looking fruit or vegetable, don’t look away!

Restaurants in the USA produce about 22-33 billion pounds of food waste each year. 4% of the food purchased by restaurants goes to waste before reaching the customer. Moreover, large portion sizes, extensive menus, and over-preparation of food all contribute to food waste. Extra food cannot be donated in the US due to health code restrictions.

Food waste in restaurants can be reduced both by customers and owners. Remember to order less, even if you feel hungry, because you can always order more later. Here’s a tip for take out: if you end up ordering more than you can eat, just reheat it for lunch! It will taste just as good.

Food waste also occurs in households. 40-50% of the food wasted in the US is household food. Some of the reasons include over-preparing, spoilage, over-buying, and poor planning. 

I always try to buy fresh things in less quantity, plan my meals around fresh products first, and use products that last longer.

 

Food waste and its impact on the environment

Food waste goes into landfills and ends up producing methane gas, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2. Food waste heats up the earth and has a direct impact on the environment. The indirect impact of food waste is related to food production. As we know, a lot of resources are used to produce food. Food production uses up a great amount of water, so when we waste food we are also wasting the resources used to produce that food. Throwing out one kilogram of beef means wasting 50,000 liters of water; about 1000 liters of water is wasted when a glass of milk is discarded. 

 

Food waste and global hunger

While looking at the statistics, the World Hunger Education Service states that there is enough food produced in the world to feed everyone. According to the FAO, in 2015 one in nine people in the world didn’t have enough food to eat — that means 793 million people are undernourished. At the same time, if we prevented only one-quarter of global food waste, we could feed 870 million people.

That means we can end global hunger by preventing food waste. This also begs the question of why so much food is wasted when there are so many people going hungry. Food goes to waste all over the world. In developed countries, food is mostly wasted after production. However, in developing countries food is lost at harvest time. Sometimes crops go bad due to infestation.

While all this seems intimidating, food waste is actually preventable, especially at an individual level — you can make a difference.

One thing my mom taught us was to take less than you think your tummy needs: you can always take more later! Remember: try not to waste food as there are many people who go hungry.

Here are some ways you can help reduce household food waste: 

  • Only buy what you need: Planning can be key in preventing food waste. Before buying your weekly groceries, make a meal plan and then make a list. Stick to that list and buy what you need.
  • First come, first cooked: After buying new groceries, move the old items to the front so that you’ll use them first. This is especially the case with fruits and vegetables, which will spoil quickly, while meat can be frozen. A lot of vegetables and fruits are wasted in households. In the EU alone, 17 billion kg of fresh fruits and vegetables are wasted. If you have some extra fruit that you may not eat, freeze it for later use.
  • Use Leftovers: There are plenty of ways to use leftovers. One thing I like to do is reserve a day each week for leftovers, when we eat all the leftovers of the week. It’s like a fun mini buffet for us.
  • Understand labels: A lot of us understand labels incorrectly. The best-before date means food is best to consume before that date. But that doesn’t mean food goes bad after that day: it’s still edible a few days after that. If it doesn’t smell, hasn’t changed color and still looks appetizing, you’re probably good to go, trust your instincts.
  • Donate: If you have a lot of leftovers, simply hand them over to the homeless community in your area. Anyone will appreciate a meal, especially when they cannot afford to have three meals a day.

 

When eating out:

  • Remember: your eyes are always hungrier than your stomach. 
  • If you are not that hungry, order an appetizer rather than a full meal.
  • Share with people at the table and get one less entree than there are people at the table; you can always order more down the line
  • Did you know restaurants are not allowed to give the food that has been on your table to others? So if you are not going to eat the free bread, ask the server to not bring it to your table: if you don’t consume it, it will be thrown out.
 

Preventing food waste in restaurant owners:

As previously mentioned, restaurants waste a lot of food and that too can be controlled.

  • Measuring food waste and knowing where it comes from can help you track which things you need to change in your menu. For example, smaller portions sizes or the option to leave out sides or extras in a dish.
  • With the help of technology, predict food demand. We can predict trends by tracking customer behavior patterns. This can help in planning out what food to stock.
  • Train your staff to not waste food.
  • Don’t overproduce. Customers want fresh food; over-prepping can lead to waste, which just wastes time and money.
  • Donate food if there are leftovers. 

 

Essentially, by preventing food waste we can kill two birds with one stone: helping the environment and helping eliminate hunger-related problems due to food waste. I live by one simple rule that is widely followed in my culture: if you have more than you can eat, feed someone who doesn’t!

Sehrish Sarosh Haider
I am a writer and an avid reader. Writing has always come to my rescue when I couldn’t express myself out loud. I love to write! Actually, I’ve been writing for a living for the last 3 years. I express my love for people through writing. And while I love to dive into a lot of different topics and expand my horizon, I always come back to writing. I am passionate about the environment, human rights, and making a difference through my writing.

Amadou Barrow

My areas of expertise center around climate change and global health; Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH); environmental and occupational health; health education and promotion; and health risk communications. I have experience as a lecturer at both university level in the area of health psychology, health education & promotion, water supply & sanitation, biostatistics, epidemiology and research methodology. I have published several scientific manuscripts in various reputable journals on maternal & child health morbidities and mortalities in LMIC settings. I am a passionate digital health enthusiast with a special focus on holistic wellbeing at all levels.

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