All of us – farmers and fishers, food processors and supermarkets, local and national governments, individual consumers – must make changes at every link of the human food chain to prevent food wastage from happening in the first place, and re-use or recycle it when we can’t, said FAO Director-General, José Graziano da Silva.
I am currently doing research for a project on food waste, and here I am sharing a segment of my introduction.
Food waste is a severe and pressing issue in many parts of the globe. It is exhausting, both on my own eyes and on our environment, to see the amount of produce and prepared food that are lost or go to waste. Meanwhile a large percentage of human beings on our planet die of hunger. Unequal distribution of resources is one of the root causes of this issue, though there are many other contributors to the problem that are driven by factors ranging from poor handling of products to human psychology. I grew up being told to put everything around me to good use, and to minimize my waste. With this in mind, I witnessed, whether at school or at a friend’s home, large amounts of waste produced in the preparation and disposal of a meal. My personal experience has brought to my attention the importance of ensuring minimization of food waste.
It is ironic that one-in-seven people in the world are undernourished and roughly one-third of the food produced — 1.3 billion tons — goes to waste. Of all the issues facing the world, food shortage is among the most prevalent, affecting people in nearly every part of the globe (Munesue et. al, 2014). Simply put, it is disturbing to consider the amount of food that goes to waste on a daily basis, realizing that approximately 21,000 people concurrently die everyday from hunger or diseases incurred by hunger. The factor standing in the way of this discrepancy is the unequal distribution of food resources made available to human beings around the world. Food waste contributes to food shortages, ironically, and also takes a tremendous toll on natural resources and the environment, both directly and indirectly. In other words, one must consider the transportation and energy required to move food products from their place of origin to the consumer. Each individual foodstuff contributes its own carbon footprint. 34 percent of food wastage is derived from cereals, meat production factors in 21 percent, and likewise for vegetables. Every foodstuff is relatively carbon-intense, and wastage provokes unnecessary damage suffered by the environment. Food production and distribution account for 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget (Webber, 2012), use 50 percent of U.S. land, and totals 80 percent of the freshwater consumed in the United States (Gunders, 2012).
According to an FAO study, 54 percent of the world’s food wastage occurs ‘upstream’ during production, and in post-harvest handling and storage. 46 percent of waste occurs ‘downstream,’ at the processing, distribution and consumption stages. This indicates that food waste occurs at every link in the food supply chain. The bottom line of the matter is that 40 percent of all food in the United States goes uneaten. Diners leave roughly 17 percent of meals untouched (Bloom, 125). This equates to $165 billion each year that could be allocated elsewhere (Buzby, 2012). The American (and global) food system is highly flawed with many inefficiencies.
The heart of this issue can be summarized succinctly in two points:
1. Food represents a minor portion of many people’s budget, thus rendering the financial cost of wasting food too low to justify a change in behavior.
2. The food industry benefits even when food is wasted, as long as the food is still purchased by the consumer. The final destination of the food, thereafter, is irrelevant.
Stacking upon food wastage, climate change is estimated to significantly raise food prices in the future. There are many other factors that contribute to food waste, and in order to improve our food system, participants must contribute at each level in a well-coordinated plan of action. Such action would require an increase in public awareness, a change in consumer behavior and a general redesigned market structure. Other emerging solutions include, for example, taking produce that is “unfortunately misshapen” — commercially unacceptable — to create a new market specifically aimed towards those perfectly edible outliers. The path we are currently on and pushing away from is not a sustainable one in terms of environmental and social efficiency.
Bloom, J. 2011. American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of its Food (and What We Can Do About It). 1st Da Capo Press edition, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Buzby, J. C., and J. Hyman. 2012. Total and per capita value of food loss in the United States. Food Policy 37:561-570.
Gunders, D. 2012. Wasted: How America is losing up to 40 percent of its food from farm to fork to landfill. Natural Resources Defense Council.
Munesue, Y., T. Masui, and T. Fushima. 2015. The effects of reducing food losses and food waste on global food insecurity, natural resources, and greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental Economics & Policy Studies 17:43-77.
Webber, M. 2012. How to make the Food System More Energy Efficient. Scientific American.