Written by Sally Speich
One of the significant issues around waste and recycling is food waste. The USDA estimates that 30% to 40% of the food produced in this country ends up wasted. While this is horrifying enough with some 800 million people going hungry in the world, the implications for our waste stream and carbon dioxide production are huge. According to Scientific American roughly 8% of the world’s green-house gases come from food waste. Along with the actual food that is dumped uneaten there are packaging (a lot of which is plastics!) gas and diesel wasted in transportation, electricity and the chemicals like hydrofluorocarbons (a strong greenhouse gas) that are used in refrigeration that are also wasted.
The USDA estimates that our food waste corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food in 2010. That number is rising daily with increased production to meet increasing population. Worldwide that estimate by the United Nations is that 1.3 billion tons (figure 2,000 pounds in each ton) of food is wasted world- wide. That is about 20 times as much. To put this in perspective just in the U.S. alone each year that is over 6 billion garbage bags of food waste. Figure each bag at 3 cubic feet; that would cover the towns of Farmington, Jay, Wilton and New Sharon 9 feet deep in garbage.
Where does all this waste begin and end? The October 2021, Scientific American gives statistics on a global level. (I could not find those for the U.S. alone.) They point out that in developing nations the averages lean toward more loss at the production and storage of crops while in developed nations more waste occurs at the market stage, in restaurants and in homes. The production end is farming. I could not discern the difference between smaller local farms and big agribusinesses but my guess would be that the larger businesses proportionally create a lot more of the waste. In general, fruits and vegetables seem to be the largest area where food is lost to weather, insects, fungus and bacteria and in general left unharvested for various reasons. Tubers like potatoes and root vegetables like carrots run a close second. Tubers also do not survive handling, storage or processing/packaging well which is a surprise to me as potatoes and carrots store well in a cold area for long periods of time. Overall, 54% of fruits and vegetables are wasted and 53% of tubers are wasted. Seafood also has a high loss in the production part of the cycle as well as in the distribution area, some 40% of the seafood harvested is turned into waste.
Overall, 22% of meat produced goes to waste from farm to fork. That is a lot lower percentage than the wasted plant produce. The true effect of the meat wasted lies in the fact that beef and other animal-based food production create much higher carbon dioxide emissions. Plant production is 10 to 50 times lower than most animal-based products when it comes to the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced in the process. The Scientific American article estimated that every minute the world wastes the equivalent of 65 cows of meat (doing the math that is 93,600 cows worth of meat a day!) Since most cows raised by big farms are heavily grained and not grass raised that means huge emissions in other carbon dioxide producing activities such fertilizing, watering and harvesting the grain as well as the storage and distribution (refrigeration, transportation) of the meat itself.
If we do not get this problem under control not only will hundreds of millions of people go hungry but millions of hectares of forest and grasslands will have to be converted to food production. By 2050 that will be more land than what is now the size of India. And in that same 30 years, there will be some 15 times the current emissions of carbon dioxide over what the entire U.S. now produces. Moving to solar and wind power, driving electric cars and better home heating are all important in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Reducing food waste is among the top five means of achieving lower greenhouse gas emissions. The consumption end of the food supply chain is where individuals can have an immediate effect. Some 10% of fruits and vegetables 8% of cereal products, 7% of meats, and 5% of seafood that make it into our restaurants and homes is turned into garbage. Reducing food waste is one of the easiest personal changes that we can make. One of the good results of reducing food waste is in monetary savings which is pretty immediate. In the next article, I will go into all the various organizations and individuals that are working to reduce the amount of food waste. Not only will these lower our carbon foot print but it saves time, energy and money at all levels of the food supply chain.
Happy Thanksgiving – enjoy your food, try not to eat too much and please use up those leftovers.