The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that every year, one third of all the food produced globally for human consumption is lost or wasted. All this waste results in reduced food security, as well as detrimental environmental impacts and economic loss. Forty six percent of all food wastage comes from processing, distribution, and consumption, and occurs more often in more developed countries, since they tend to have good infrastructure and technology to prevent food losses during the growing and harvesting phases of the food chain and consequently have more food waste than loss. Food loss tends to be found in more developing countries, as they more frequently lose more food during production and harvest than farther along in the food chain. Food waste occurs with all types of food, but is most common with cereal grains, starchy roots, fruits, and vegetables.
The impact that the 1.3 billion tons of wasted edible food has on the environment is enormous. If food waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses after China and the United States. Food produces greenhouse gasses like methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), and nitrous oxide (N2O) as it decomposes in landfills. CO2 is the most widely known and is found in the largest quantities in the atmosphere, but even though CH4 and N2O are present in lesser quantities, they hold 25 and 298 times more heat than CO2 respectively. These gasses, which mostly come from decomposing cereals, vegetables, and meat out of all the food waste, trap heat in the atmosphere, slowly heating the earth.
Vast amounts of water are wasted when food is thrown out, since agriculture is largest consumer of fresh water in the world. It makes up 92% of the global water footprint, which was developed by the Water Footprint Network and is a measure of the total volume of fresh water used to produce the good. When food is wasted, so is all the water that went into producing it. Fresh water is already a scare commodity, with wars being fought over who gets water as demand for fresh water grows, so we cannot afford to waste it. Throwing out one egg wastes 200 liters of water and throwing out one kilogram of beef wastes 50,000 liters of water! On average, one person uses 300-380 liters of water a day, so throwing out such a large amount of water by tossing out a small amount of food is hugely detrimental.
The amount of food wasted in 2007 alone was produced on 28% of the earth’s land used for agriculture, which is an amount of land equal to 80% of the size of Russia. Half of the livable land in the world is used for agriculture, and ¾ of that land is used for rearing livestock. Agriculture disturbs natural environments and requires large water and nutrient inputs to produce good yields. It also causes soil nutrient depletion and erosion, as crops take nutrients from the soil and as the soil is left bare to the elements when crops are not in the soil. There is also a serious loss to biodiversity as natural land is converted into cropland or pasture. Wasting food makes all of those impacts on the land for naught, since the food produced on it is being tossed out.
This chart shows how much of each food category is wasted, and how much land it takes to produce it
There are many reasons for the causes of food waste, but thankfully those problem areas can be reduced or eliminated to prevent food waste. Businesses in the food industry have the ability to mitigate many of these impacts by changing their production and handling processes, which would greatly improve the health of the environment. By clarifying “best by” dates on packages, encouraging consumers to buy produce that does not look perfect, donating extra food to food banks, and only producing what is needed, billions of pounds of food will stay out of landfills each year, there will be a large reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and fewer resources will be wasted in the production of food that ends up in the trash. There is so much potential for companies to reduce food waste by taking the initiative to make changes within their own actions, and the world will become a lot healthier when they do so.
Olivia Olson - Foodbank Việt Nam