According to the United Nations, one in nine people on the planet do not have access to the amount of food needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Because of this, more people are estimated to die from hunger every day than malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS combined. This has become such a large issue globally, that the UN has made hunger and poverty a top priority in constructing their Sustainable Development Goals for the coming decades. Even in America, home to one of the largest global economies, 12% of households are considered food insecure (a number that is only increasing amongst the COVID-19 crisis). One might think that the solution to this problem would simply be to produce more food; however, approximately one third of the food produced worldwide goes to waste, meaning, the amount of food being produced isn’t the driving force behind this issue.
How can these two problems coexist?
Food waste, as defined by the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) is “…food discarded by retailers due to color or appearance and plate waste by consumers.” However, this differs from food loss. Food loss is considered to be any food products that are unused or thrown away before being purchased by consumers. The majority of food loss occurs during the production stage, mainly due to unmet aesthetic standards set in place by distributors, and are therefore rejected by the supermarkets where food is purchased by consumers. Since a majority of the food we consume in the United States is shipped from other countries and must travel a ways to reach us (even products such as produce that have a limited shelf life), there is also a significant portion of food that spoils during transportation, and is therefore uneaten. This is also considered a form of food loss because it occurs even before reaching the hands of consumers, meaning that the 49 million tons per year that are wasted in individual households is just a fraction of the total food products that actually go to waste.
How does this impact the environment?
Since only about 5% of leftover food products get composted, the vast majority of them end up in landfills, making it the largest source of solid municipal waste in the United States. When these food products begin to decompose, they release a powerful greenhouse gas called methane, which is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. This methane is released into the atmosphere, along with the many metric tons of carbon emissions released during the transportation process, which ultimately add to the greenhouse effect. Food production is also responsible for 25% of freshwater consumption, making it the leading cause of freshwater pollution. So when that food goes uneaten, all of the water used during the lengthy process required to get food from the farm to your dinner table, was used for nothing.
How do we solve this issue?
Food consumption is one of the major aspects of sustainability in which consumers do have choices. The most simple of those choices being to reduce your food waste as much as possible. If there are leftover items in your refrigerator or pantry that you know will go unwanted, donate them to a local soup kitchen or homeless shelter. For spoiled produce, try to find a compost station near your home to avoid sending all of that food to the landfills. Also, farmers markets are a great way to ensure the food you buy is local and in season; these are two important components of reducing the carbon footprint of the food industry.
Below are several links to resources that you may find useful if you are wanting to avoid food waste and reduce your overall carbon footprint: