What if you were forced to throw away almost half of every single thing you ate? And what if every person in the United States were forced to do the same…indefinitely?
Food Waste at the National Level
Doesn’t sound too appetizing, does it? In fact, I imagine it would make a lot of us feel pretty indignant. And yet, collectively, Americans voluntarily do the equivalent of this; we toss out 40% of our food, most of it ending up in landfills where it then generates methane as it decomposes (creating 23% of the US’s total annual methane emissions).
When we consider the resources put into generating the food that graces our tables, this scenario becomes even more of a concern.
Dana Gunders, in her 2012 report for The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) titled Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, states that growing and getting food from farm to table takes up 10% of our nation’s energy budget, 50% of our nation’s land, and accounts for 80% of our freshwater use.
The 40% of food we waste costs us $165 billion a year, wastes 25% of the freshwater used, and a lot of time, energy, inputs, land, and labor. While composting is one way to partially mitigate food waste, Gunders reports that only 3% of food waste in the U.S. is composted.
And the cherry on top? Despite such waste, one in six Americans is food insecure.
Food Waste at the Global Level
It’s not just the US that wastes large amounts of food. It’s estimated the collective food waste of wealthy nations is nearly equivalent to the amount sub-saharan Africa is able to produce in a year.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) 2009 report, The Environmental Crisis: the Environment’s Role in Averting Future Food Crises, sub-saharan Africa generates some 230 million tons of food annually, and wealthy countries collectively waste some 222 million tons of food during the same time period. And globally, it is estimated that 30-50% of all food produced annually (around 2 billion tons) is wasted. At the same time, between 2010 and 2012, 870 million people around the world were food insecure.
While this isn’t a tasty scenario by any measure, its made worse by the fact that the world’s population is expected to increase by 2.7 billion people by 2050, at the same time that we face the risk of a food crisis by that same date, due to environmental degradation. Unless we change how food is produced, 25% of global food production could be lost by 2050.
It wasn’t always this way. Gunders says Americans waste 50% more food now than we did in the 1970s. This suggests our food habits were once quite different from those we have today.
An obvious first step in curbing our ‘foodprint’ is for each of us to take a mindful look at our food purchasing and consumption patterns, and alter them to reduce our personal and household levels of food waste.
Composting is another good way to mitigate the negative effects of food waste. Because we only compost 3% of the food waste we generate, there’s a lot of room for improvement in this area. Gunders writes:
Composting is an important way to manage this waste; it reduces methane emissions, recycles nutrients, and raises consciousness about the quantities of food being wasted. It also makes possible the capture of methane for energy generation via a process called anaerobic digestion. No matter how efficient we are with food, there will always be organic scraps needing disposal. For all these reasons, composting is an important complement to increasing food use efficiency.
More cities are starting curbside composting services, and in those that don’t, residents can rally together and push for them. No composting in your area? Those who have a yard can purchase a composting container. And what better time than now to start a backyard vegetable garden to use your own compost on?
A growing number of local “food rescue” organizations are mitigating food waste by taking unsellable, but still usable, food and getting it into the hands of those who need it. One bonus to these organizations is that, unlike food banks, food rescues deal with perishable foods.
They are also largely volunteer-based, so check to see if one is operating in your area, or start your own. If you’re so inclined, check out the Boulder Food Rescue video above for inspiration (note how they operate mainly on bicycles!) on how you can get get your own food rescue project off the ground.
And here are just some examples of other food rescue projects going on in different cities that a quick Internet search revealed:
- City Harvest in New York City
- Food Rescue, Vallejo, CA
- Central Texas Food Rescue, Austin, TX
- Food Rescue, Indianapolis, IN
- Potluck Food Rescue for Arkansas, North Little Rock, AR
- Food for Free, Cambridge, MA
- Lovin’ Spoonfuls, Boston, MA
- Intervale Gleaning & Food Rescue, Burlington, VT
As a side note, if you do start a food rescue operation, in case places you solicit for donations are worried about liability, the Good Samaritan Food Donation Act protects them.
For further edification check out these additional links and articles:
- Food Waste is Overwhelming. Here are Five Things People are Doing About It on NPR.org
- United Nations Environment Programme’s 2013 World Environment Day theme Think. Eat. Save – Reduce Your Foodprint. (World Environment Day is June 5, 2013).
- The United Nations Environment Programme online report The Environmental Food Crisis
- Mother Jones’ story Why Doesn’t Your City Have Curbside Composting? about how for-profit trash collecting companies (aka ‘Big Trash’) have lobbied to change state composting policies.
- Read Dana Gunders’ report in its entirety (.pdf download – may take a moment): Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill
- The UK has started a food waste awareness campaign, Love Food, Hate Waste, and the site has food saving tips on it.