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Food waste

Waste reduction forms a key aspect to a more sustainable world. A starting point could be to reduce our daily food waste. According to the The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), a whopping one third of the global food production ends up as food waste.

In developed countries, food is plentiful. In just about every city you can find multiple grocery stores, small tokos, restaurants, and lunchrooms at just about every corner. As a consequence, the issue of food waste is easily overlooked by many.

Food waste should however forma serious concern. Currently, approximately 805 million people go to bed feeling hungry every single day. Additionally, food waste results in the emission of greenhouse gases and is thus an important driver behind climate change. It results in large economic losses, the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity, and causes water shortages in critical regions.

 

A selection of fruit an vegetables in a supermarket

 

Taking up issues such as global warming straight on, can quickly become overwhelming. Food waste, on the contrary, is more of a so-called low-hanging fruit. Many aspects of food waste can quite easily be tackled without the need for any new technology while its potential reward is very high.

Creating widespread awareness for the issue of food waste is an important first step to help reduce our waste in general and help in the battle against global warming.

 

What is food waste

Food waste can be defined as a decrease in the food mass directed for human consumption during any part of the supply chain – from the ground towards your mouth and everything that comes about to make it possible. Some organizations however make a distinction between food loss and food waste. According to them, food loss occurs at the harvest and production levels and food waste occurs at the end of the food supply chain, at retailers and consumers.

Five categories of food waste can be defined within the supply chain according to the FAO:

  1. Losses during agricultural production.
  2. Food lost during postharvest handling and storage of food
  3. Food lost and degraded during the processing of food.
  4. Discarded food by retailers
  5. Food wasted by us, the consumers.

Especially the last two stages of the supply chain hold the potential for large steps to be made within a short period of time without the need for new technology or large investments. All that is basically needed is a mindshift.

 

Looking globally at food waste

Globally, about 1.3 billion ton of food is wasted each year. The following figure shows, for different regions in the world, the portion of food wasted by consumers compared to the food wasted in all other steps of the supply chain.

 

Graph of Food waste per capita for several regions

 

It is striking how much food is thrown out by consumers in the industrialized parts of the world – Europe, North America, and parts of Asia – compared to third-world countries. Although people in the western countries possess the technology, the infrastructure, and the knowledge, they still manage to have a higher food waste per capita than people in the developing parts of the world.   

Trends in food waste are highly related to cultural development1)Parfitt, J., Barthel, M., & Macnaughton, S. (2010). Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 365(1554), 3065-3081.. As countries develop and become richer, their diet adapts as well. Richer countries tend to substitute starchy products by shorter shelf-life items, products such as dairy, fish, and meat. Not only do these products perish faster, they also have a far greater impact on the environment compared to their starchy counterparts.

The high urbanization rate of developing countries also poses a problem. As more people stack up in cities, a better and more efficient infrastructure is needed to get all the food to those areas. This often results in an increase in food waste because the infrastructure lacks behind the rapid urbanization2)Parfitt, J., Barthel, M., & Macnaughton, S. (2010). Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 365(1554), 3065-3081..

It seems that wealth and food waste go hand in hand. Although rich countries possess the most advanced technology and machinery, their food waste per capita is still on top. It is not just a technical issue. By adapting our habits and state of mind, we should be able to come a long way in reducing our food waste before having to make any concessions at all to our eating habits.

 

Food waste on a Cropland

 

Consequences for the environment

From start to finish, the whole food production process forms a grave pressure on the environment. The most well-known effect of food waste on the environment is probably that of greenhouse gas emissions. It is not just the greenhouse gas carbon, but methane too is an important greenhouse gas emitted by the food industry. Although methane is emitted much less than carbon, its warming effects are 25 times as strong!3)Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, R.B. Alley, T. Berntsen, N.L. Bindoff, Z. Chen, A. Chidthaisong, J.M. Gregory, G.C. Hegerl, M. Heimann, B. Hewitson, B.J. Hoskins, F. Joos, J. Jouzel, V. Kattsov, U. Lohmann, T. Matsuno, M. Molina, N. Nicholls, J.Overpeck, G. Raga, V. Ramaswamy, J. Ren, M. Rusticucci, R. Somerville, T.F. Stocker, P. Whetton, R.A. Wood and Wratt, D. (2007) Technical Summary. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (Eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY,USA. These and other greenhouse gases are amongst others emitted due to the machinery used, due to land use change to create more agricultural lands, due to fertilizers used, by the livestock, and by food dumped into landfills.

There is a high uncertainty within the calculations of greenhouse gases produced during the complete food production chain. It is estimated that 17 to 32% of the total greenhouse gases emitted by humans, is due to the food production industry, and it is probably on the higher side of this range. The food industry thus has quite a strong impact on our climate.

A reduction of food produced at the front end – thus less food that has to go through the whole supply chain – has the potential to greatly reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions without having any negative consequences.

 

Market stand with fruit and vegetables

 

This is however not the only facet in which the food supply chain adversely affects the environment. During their lifetime, crops transpire a great amount of water every single day until they are harvested. Water transpired by crops that end up as waste alone already equals the annual discharge of Europe’s largest river in terms of discharge and length – the Volga river in Russia4)http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/196220/icode/. In areas where water is plentiful, this is not always directly a problem. In the more arid areas of the world however, water for crops can be extremely scarce.

Farmers also tend to excessively fertilize their crops during their growth cycle. As we previously explained in our blog post about why we chose to become vegetarians, a large part of these fertilizers will not be taken up by the crops, but instead gets flushed out of the crop fields and into the surrounding areas during precipitation. Especially nutrient poor ecosystems are adversely affected by this. Fertilization of ecosystems results among others in the loss of biodiversity, reduces the ability of ecosystems to protect themselves against pests, and even poses a threat for our drinking water.

The last aspect we would like to mention through which the environment is heavily impacted by the food production industry, is the direct destruction of nature areas to create more agricultural land. We think the negative consequences this brings along mostly speaks for itself. Some adverse effects are the emission of greenhouse gases through burning of the wood (also known as slash and burn agriculture); disruption of the water cycle which potentially results in the aridification of large areas; and the loss of biodiversity and extinction of many species.

 

It’s a vicious cycle

We are currently in a vicious cycle. It is not just that the food production affects the environment. Agriculture is affected by the state of the environment as well!

Deforestation as goal to land available for agriculture for example, can affect the hydrological cycle (transpiration and thus precipitation patterns) quite severely. When transpiration decreases, so does precipitation. This can eventually lead to the desertification of the area, making the land unsuitable for agricultural practices as well as for natural reforestation. In the end we are worse off than we were at the start!

Our current practices heavily degrade the land; reduce Earth’s ability to provide us with ecosystem services which we have heavily relied upon for ages (which we will explain more in-depth in a future post); increase the chance for droughts in critical areas which potentially lead to famines; and eventually, Earth’s ability to grow crops and provide us with edible material. We currently seem to be reaching the limit of Earth’s resources.

A reduction of our food waste would mean that less food needs to be produced to feed the same amount of people. A lower food production will subsequently help us protect our environment and simultaneously increase our food security!

 

High standards

One simple fix to reduce food waste, is to reduce our high standards of food here in the developed countries. A story on National Geographic tells how approximately 6 million pounds of vegetables get thrown into a landfill, coming from just one transfer station. No, not because they have perished. But because of mismatched labels, sealing and cutting of the packages, or due to undesired shapes. I hope you can agree with me that we should feel ashamed about this.

This is one of the reasons why we go to the same veg and fruit stand on the local market each week. The people working at this stand buy their produce at a relatively low price compared to others, solely because the quality is not always perfect. Some of the fruit we buy, we really have to eat the same day as we buy it else it will get moldy. However, overall, most of their products still last for at least a week but is just oddly shaped or colored.

In the grocery store, some people already don’t buy vegetables if they do not look “perfect”. A bell pepper with a lump or with different colors for example. We seem to have forgotten that fruit and vegetables are products from nature, not perfect man made products in an factory. It is normal for plants to differ in shape and size, that is how evolution works nonetheless.

 

 

In a quite inspiring TED talk, Tristram Stuart told an interesting story. If you buy a sandwich just about anywhere in the world, have you ever seen the first or last slice (the one covered in crust) of a loaf of bread being used? You most likely have not. About 13.000 slices of day-fresh bread end up in the garbage each day, from just one of the many factories. Tristram continues to show how for example bananas and parsnips are discarded by farmers, just because they have the wrong shape and size desired by the customers.

A final important problem is date labels on food. More people than you would imagine do not understand what date labels on food mean. In general they merely indicate a date until which food is for certain in “perfect” shape, formulated for example as: “best before”. Many tend to throw food away when this date has past while most food however is still perfectly edible at that moment. A study reported that a staggering 20% of the food waste by consumers in the UK is caused by confusion with food labels5)https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/dating-game-report.pdf.

We as a society need to go back to our roots. We need to learn where food comes from and when it is still edible.

 

Food shortage

Promoting food loss reduction is not only helpful for the environment, it can also potentially help reduce hunger in the world. The NRDC states that a whopping 40% of the total food available in the United states never gets eaten. On the other end of the spectrum, one in eight struggles to put enough food on their plate each day. A reduction of 25% of our total global food waste is already enough to feed the 805 million people in the world that go to bed feeling hungry each day.

While humanity is throwing out more and more food and living more extravagantly, the world population increases exponentially. Each year, each month, each day, we demand more and more from the Earth. Simultaneously, the Earth is degrading because of us at an unprecedented rate and thus decreases its ability to provide us with food.

 

 

The world population is expected to reach 9 billion in the year of 2050. All of these people would like to be able to get food.

Scientists, engineers and farmers are unremittingly looking for solutions to tackle the problem of food shortage. They have come up with solutions such as vertical farming which is up to 10 times more productive per square meter, urban roof farming, using GMO’s, and even animal-free meat.

All these options are of course potentially great if they eventually work out. But they are not applicable at this very moment, and certainly not worldwide in the third-world countries. Decreasing your food waste ís a possibility right now. By doing so you can help fight food shortage in the world right now.

 

What can you do starting today

Luckily, more and more people are aware of the gravity of the issue. The FAO has for example set up a toolkit, which consists of four main strategies to reduce food waste. The TED talk speaker, Tristram Stuart, promotes the idea of using inevitable food waste as feed for pigs instead of using food that is edible for humans. And there are many more initiatives like this that work towards reducing our food waste.

But now it is time to help out yourself and to reduce your own food waste! If you need an extra incentive to get you started, it is also great for your wallet. About 20% of the food bought in the United States gets thrown out in the garbage instead of being eaten6)https://www.savethefood.com. A family of four can, on average, save about 1,560 till 2,275 dollars each single year 7)https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/dating-game-report.pdf. I do not know about your income, but for us that’s about a month’s worth income!

We need to be mindful and aware of what we eat and buy each day. We need to ask questions like what needs to be eaten first this week? What do I have at home before I go to the grocery store? Is this still edible? Does this really have to be thrown out?

I would like to end with a great quote taken from the national geographic:

 

Let’s buy just the food we need so we throw away less. Let’s accept that produce can be top quality and delicious even if it has a slight imperfection in appearance. Let’s bring meals home that we don’t finish in restaurants. Small changes will yield big results.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1, 2. Parfitt, J., Barthel, M., & Macnaughton, S. (2010). Food waste within food supply chains: quantification and potential for change to 2050. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 365(1554), 3065-3081.
3. Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, R.B. Alley, T. Berntsen, N.L. Bindoff, Z. Chen, A. Chidthaisong, J.M. Gregory, G.C. Hegerl, M. Heimann, B. Hewitson, B.J. Hoskins, F. Joos, J. Jouzel, V. Kattsov, U. Lohmann, T. Matsuno, M. Molina, N. Nicholls, J.Overpeck, G. Raga, V. Ramaswamy, J. Ren, M. Rusticucci, R. Somerville, T.F. Stocker, P. Whetton, R.A. Wood and Wratt, D. (2007) Technical Summary. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (Eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY,USA.
4. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/196220/icode/
5, 7. https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/dating-game-report.pdf
6. https://www.savethefood.com


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