The Global Problem That Is Called Food Waste
We spoke to fellow B Corp Recycle Track Systems, who are on a mission to improve waste management and sustainability. Read what they had to say about the problem of food waste.. and what we can all do to solve it!
Food waste is a truly global problem with severe social, environmental and economic costs. The issues it creates are far-reaching and impact people around the world. That said, it is slowly being recognized as a serious issue, as seen with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals noting that “reducing food loss and waste can contribute to environmental sustainability” while at the same time improving “food security and nutrition.” But before exploring some of the ways food waste can be reduced, let’s take a look at the problems it creates and why it occurs in the first place.
Around one-third of all food produced for human consumption ends up lost or wasted, which equates to about 1.3 billion tons per year globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This has a dire environmental impact, with food waste being the single largest component of landfills in the United States, and landfills being the third-largest source of methane. Methane that, pound for pound, is 25 times more efficient at trapping radiation than carbon dioxide.
Beyond this direct contribution to greenhouse gases and thus global warming, food being wasted also means that the resources needed to produce it are wasted. For example, it is estimated that global food waste accounts for 45 trillion gallons of water, which equates to 24% percent of all water used for agriculture. And this is at a time when the World Economic Forum lists water scarcity as one of the largest global risks over the next decade in terms of potential impact.
Food waste is also a severe social issue, as while a third of what is produced is trashed, almost 690 million people are hungry — that is 8.9% of the world population. And this is only expected to rise, with an estimated 840 million people predicted to be affected by hunger by 2030 if current trends continue. While the majority of the world’s undernourished are in Asia and Africa, it is still a global issue with more than a quarter of all people suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity.
Additionally, there is the financial impact of food waste, with an estimated cost of about 2.6 trillion USD per year. To put that in perspective, it is roughly equal to the GDP of the United Kingdom. This financial loss is obviously bad for end consumers, businesses and producers alike, but also represents the lost opportunity of alleviating poverty — including food poverty — around the world.
Food waste occurs for a number of reasons and at every stage of the food production chain. It starts on the farms, where large amounts of produce never even makes it out of the field due to natural causes, such as weather and disease, as well as financial reasons such as labour costs or overproduction. There is also a huge amount of culling, whereby food is discarded based on criteria such as size, colour, and sugar content.
In addition to that which is lost on the farms, around 83% of food waste in the United States occurs at consumer-facing businesses and within consumers’ households — 40% and 43% respectively. For businesses in industrialized countries, this is down to a number of issues. One such example is the drive for abundance, whereby both restaurants and grocery stores stock much more than is needed in order to give the impression of plentifulness — and as there is too much produce stocked, it goes unsold and ends up as waste.
One of the biggest issues when it comes to consumer food waste is a simple lack of education. The confusion or misinterpretation of labels such as “sell by,” “use by,” and “best before” can lead to food being trashed while still perfectly edible. A study by the European Commission in February 2018, for example, estimated that up to 10% of the annual food waste in the EU is linked to these date labels. And in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration urged companies to standardize labels to reduce confusion after estimating that “Consumer uncertainty about the meaning of the dates that appear on the labels of packaged foods is believed to contribute to about [20%] of food waste in the home.”
There is a growing number of possible solutions to tackle food waste across the entire food supply chain. But, since households account for the largest portion of food waste, we’re going to focus on simple changes in the home that can have a dramatic impact on this global problem.
First, education! As mentioned, confusion over expiration labels leads to huge amounts of food waste, so take the time to learn what each of the different labels means — and teach the rest of your household as well!
One of the basic differences:
Best if used by — describes the quality, not safety, so products might not be as expected, but they won’t do you any harm.
Use by — applies to very few products that are highly perishable and might have food safety concerns over time.
Another small change that you as a consumer can make is accepting “strange” produce. The demand for perfect products leads to food being wasted before it ever reaches you due to the culling mentioned earlier. If you say “yes” to wonky carrots and weird-looking onions, then they are more likely to make it into the food chain in the first place.
Additionally, start planning shopping and meals so you don’t overstock your kitchen or cook too much — both of which can lead to waste. What’s more, learn what to do with leftovers! Store them properly in LilyBee Wrap, freeze them for longer use, and experiment with recipes that utilize last night’s remnants.
Chances are you will always have some food waste coming out of your home, but even this should be diverted to the compost heap, whether at home or commercially, rather than the landfill. The nutrients can then be returned to the soil and used for the production of more food!
This is a serious issue with far-reaching and highly problematic consequences. But, there are ways to fix it at each step along the food supply chain, and even if it is just small changes in the home, each and every one of us has the power to help tackle the global problem that is food waste.
Find out more about Recycle Track Systems here.