On June 5, we’ll celebrate World Environment Day. This year UNEP focuses on Food waste/Food Loss. At Raxa Collective we’ll be carrying out actions and sharing experience and ideas. Come and join us with your tips to preserve foods, preserve resources and preserve our planet.
As a child, I was always told to finish eating my meals because there were starving children in poor and faraway lands that would gladly trade places with me. I could not exactly picture what that meant, and the rebelious part of me always wanted to stick a postage stamp on my plate and send it to these children. No one who grew up with such abundance, I think, could trade the fresh memory of a full meal for a clear picture of hunger.
Being from Texas (and proud of it, so don’t mess with that), with its long “bigger and better” history and wonderful mythology of abundance and its can-do certainty, I did not “get it”. Now, the hazy memories of those dinners and parental wisdom are coming into perspective with my ability to follow and understand news from around the world.
Lately I have been learning about famine in Africa. Families walk for miles to receive food from the maxed-out refugee camps. Many of these people do not make it to the camps and die along the way. Others die upon arrival, already too far gone. It unnerves me to see photos of starving children on television while I watch so much food be thrown away almost everywhere I turn. Economic turmoil beckons both the U.S. and Europe, drought looms upon almost every corner of the globe, nearly one billion people are malnourished, and approximately 1.3 billion tons of food is thrown away each year. These are just a few statistics that baffle me and lead me to the age-old question, “What the….?” Maybe I am too simple minded, but after some research I believe that decreasing food waste would be an easy solution to many world crises.
Among environmental problems, food waste rarely registers as a concern. The events in east Africa are preemptive to what the whole world could become as it teeters on the edge of food crisis due to growing populations, rising food prices, and water scarcity. With so much food wasted researcher, Dr. Charlotte de Fraiture of the International Water Management Institute asserts, “As much of half of the water used to grow food globally may be lost or wasted.” When all the resources to get food from farm to table are tallied, the consequences of this wastefulness are staggering: twenty-five percent of all freshwater and four percent of all oil consumed in the U.S. are used to produce food that is never eaten. If this wasteful behavior is curtailed, the water used to produce food could otherwise be used for drinking water, industry, or to irrigate other crops and replenish aquifers.
The equivalent to 13 percent, or 30 million tons, of all municipal waste is food scraps or edible cast-offs from residents and food-service establishments. The UK estimates that about two-thirds of all food waste going to a landfill from hospitality sectors is edible. When all this food decomposes in a landfill, it produces the by-product methane, which is estimated to have about 20 times the global warming potency as carbon-dioxide. Based on the Environmental Protection Agency, rotting food could be the culprit of about one-tenth of all anthropogenic methane emissions.
Food waste is heterogeneous in sorts, making it difficult to pinpoint one thing, but the cumulative effect of several factors bleed on the economy and the environment. Supermarkets discard misshapen yet perfectly edible apples because they don’t appeal to the picky shopper’s eye. Convenience stores and buffet style restaurants cook too many hotdogs or pizzas to match a limited demand on stormy days. According to Tristram Stuart’s Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal, up to half the entire food supply is wasted between the farm and the fork. If crops wastefully fed to livestock are included, European countries have more than three times more food than they need, while the US has around four times more food than is needed, and up to three-quarters of the nutritional value is lost before it reaches people’s mouths.
However, the big players in the food industry—supermarkets, farms, and processors— are not the biggest contributors to the food waste dilemma. Compared to retail’s waste of 5.4 billion pounds of food, 91 billion pounds are wasted in America’s kitchens, restaurants, and cafeterias alone. So, in other words, the food service and consumer-loss contributes to about 95% of all food waste. This means that most of the responsibility falls on the people who prepare the food, from the home-cooked meal, dinner at a full-service restaurant, or the drive-thru hamburger from a quick-service restaurant.
Food waste has only increased over the years, and the trends in the food consumption and production are aggravating the waste of food and water. As nations grow further away from poverty, people consume more meat, fruit, and vegetables that spoil more quickly and use more water. Also, food is imported from all over the world today making the food chain more complexand increases the distance between farm and table creating more opportunities for wastage. In many industrialized countries, excessive consumption and the “super-sized” mindset create a global impact. It reduces the overall supply of food, takes food off of the world market, raises food prices, and impacts water resources where the food is produce. Many of the producing countries like Egypt, India, Israel, and Thailand face water scarcity.
Reducing food waste at every stage of the food chain would lessen the need for excessive food production and, in turn, save water. The EPA suggests various methods of reducing waste and efficiently disposing of any remaining waste.
Understanding the implications of the majority of the world’s current diet would help connect the food and the world’s limited resources. There are smart choices that can help reduce food waste, and hopefully as these choices become the new norm, disasters such as famine and water scarcity will fade even slightly.
This was originally posted on Aug 6, 2011.