How Food Waste is Destroying the Planet

Food waste is the 3rd biggest emitter of CO2 and greenhouse gases. We throw away a third of all food produced in the world. It needs to stop.

food waste

A new report by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation contains some shocking stats on the environmental impact of global food waste.  A third of the total food produced in the world is wasted.

Food is wasted at all levels from production, harvest and distribution.  But it is the impact that we consumers have which is the biggest problem.  Global edible food waste is estimated at around 1.3 gigatonnes.

This is a problem for our food security and the sheer amount of greenhouse emissions created from food waste is fuelling climate change.


How does food waste impact the environment?

By far and away the emissions from food waste at consumer level is the biggest problem.  When food reaches your table it has already released emissions from production, harvest and distribution.  Any food wasted at this point throws away all that energy.

It is estimated that the emissions released from producing food, which isn’t eaten, is around 3.3 gigatonnes of CO2. That means food waste is the 3rd biggest emitter of CO2 after the U.S. and China.

Emissions are not the only impact that this food waste has.

The blue water footprint (the consumption of surface and groundwater resources) of food waste is 250m3.  To put that into perspective, that figure is equivalent to the annual discharge of the Volga River in Russia.

The food waste from un-eaten food takes up about 1.4 billion hectares of land.  That is around 30% of the world’s total agricultural land.


The production of Methane:

Methane is produced in huge volumes in animal agriculture.  It is also produced when food waste decomposes in landfills (alongside CO2).  Methane is 23x more potent than CO2.

This is why food waste at consumer levels is so concerning.  We throw far too much food into landfills and this is contributing to climate change.


Who is wasting the most food?

You may think that Europe and America are the biggest contributors to food waste and CO2 emissions.  It is actually China, Japan and South Korea.

However, per person, in Europe and America we waste far more (edible) food.

  • Each consumer wastes between 95-115kg food in U.S. and Europe
  • Each consumer wastes between 6-11kg in Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia


Why is the West wasting so much food?

There is a fairly simple reason for this.  We see food as a commodity.  Food is a lifestyle accessory and we take it for granted.   After all food is literally everywhere.

Supermarkets, fast food chains, food programmes and magazines tempt us into buying food we don’t need. Supermarkets in particular like to bombard us with discount bulk buys where we will inevitably throw away excess food.

Supermarkets also place huge pressure on food producers to supply them with perfect products.  It is very common for food to be destroyed after harvest because of small imperfections.

We as consumers have to shoulder the blame too.  We know far less now about how to cook and prepare food than our parents do.  We waste food as it spoils, or we discard food we think we cannot use (such as bones and leftovers).


Feeding an ever increasing population:

By 2020 there will be 8 billion people on the planet.  Our food production needs to meet this demand.

How can we feed that many?

Well, around the world agriculture is destroying natural habitats and converting them into useable, productive areas.  This severely damages global biodiversity and causes a whole host of other problems.

There are 2 solutions that can prevent the need to destroy natural habitats for farm land.

1.We invest in biotechnologies to design higher yields (this is a controversial area)


2.We re-distribute the food we make.

Globally we make enough food for 12 billion people yet we waste enough food to feed 4 billion people a year.  Reducing global food waste could help feed our growing population without the need for more agricultural land.


How can we reduce our food waste?

There are things we can all do to reduce our food waste.  I have written a guide that you should check out here.

Some good quick tips that you should start doing right now are:

  • Plan your dinners in advance
  • Make a detailed shopping list
  • Serve reasonable portions
  • Save and eat leftovers
  • Compost everything you can 

If we all made these small changes our individual food waste levels would drop significantly and our global food waste levels would fall.


Image: Jbloom

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