Impact of food waste on the environment

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

The United Nations estimates that one in nine people in the world do not have access to sufficient food to lead a healthy life. More people are reported to die from hunger every day than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. But at the same time, nearly one-third of the food that is produced in the world is lost or wasted due to one reason or the other. Food wastage, which includes both food loss and food waste, is not only morally irresponsible, but also causes huge economical losses as well as severe damage to the world around us.

What causes food waste?

While food loss happens mainly at the production stage due to insufficient skills, natural calamities, lack of proper infrastructure and poor practices, food waste occurs when edible food is intentionally discarded by consumers after they fail to plan their meals properly and store food till it spoils or goes past the expiry date. At times, food waste can also happen due to oversupply in markets. Retailers also tend to reject a lot of food because it doesn’t conform to their quality and aesthetic standards. A 2013 FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) report, which was the first study to analyze the impacts of global food wastage on the environment, says that nearly one-third of all food produced in the world for human consumption does not find its way to our tables.

Impact of food waste on the environment

LandfillFoodWastePileGarbageTrash.jpgMore than 50 percent of the waste occurs during “upstream,” or the production, yield handling and storage phase and the remaining happens during processing, distribution and consumption stages or the “downstream” phase.

The FAO report was also able to discern a clear pattern in food waste at the global level. While middle and higher income regions showed greater food loss and waste during the downstream phase or at the consumption level, developing countries were more likely to lose or waste food at the upstream phase due to lack of proper harvest techniques and infrastructure.

It goes without saying that the later food is wasted along the chain, the greater is its environmental impact, because then we also have to take into consideration the energy and natural resources expended in processing, transporting, storing and cooking it. If included in a list of countries ranked according to their greenhouse emissions, food waste would come in the third spot, right after USA and China.

Food waste that ends up in landfills produces a large amount of methane – a more powerful greenhouse gas than even CO2. For the uninitiated, excess amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane, CO2 and chloroflurocarbons absorb infrared radiation and heat up the earth’s atmosphere, causing global warming and climate change.

With agriculture accounting for 70 percent of the water used throughout the world, food waste also represents a great waste of freshwater and ground water resources. It is said that a volume of water roughly three times the volume of Lake Geneva is used just to produce food that is not eaten. By throwing out one kilogram of beef, you are essentially wasting 50,000 liters of water that were used to produce that meat. In the same way, nearly 1000 liters of water are wasted when you pour one glass of milk down the drain.

If you look at land usage, around 1.4 billion hectares of land, which is roughly one-third the world’s total agricultural land area, is used to grow food that is wasted. Millions of gallons of oil are also wasted every year to produce food that is not eaten. And all this does not even take into account the negative impacts on biodiversity due to activities like monocropping and converting wild lands into agricultural areas.

What can be done to tackle food waste?

LadyGoingThroughFridgeFoodWasteGarbageCleaningExpired.jpgAs FAO director Jose Graziano da Silva says, in addition to the environmental imperative to tackle food waste, there is also a moral one. How can we simply let so much food go waste when millions of people around the world go hungry every day?

To stop food waste, changes have to be brought in at every stage of the process – from farmers and food processors to supermarkets and individual customers. As a first step, priority should be given to balancing production with demand. This essentially translates to lesser use of natural resources to produce food which is not needed.

Secondly, more effort should go into developing better food harvesting, storing, processing and distributing processes. If oversupply happens, steps should be taken to redistribute the food or to divert it to people who are in need. Though the UN says that food production will have to increase by more than half to meet the demands of the growing population by 2050, the actual increase would be much lesser if food waste was reduced.

CarrotsUglyVegetablesFoodFoodwaste.jpgLarge restaurants, supermarkets, retail outlets and individual consumers can also reduce their “food footprint” by identifying where waste occurs and taking steps to tackle the same. Fruits which are misshaped or “ugly” are not necessarily bad and can still be bought and used in dishes like soups.

Consumers should also try to buy food in accordance with a meal plan so that they don’t end up wasting edible food. Food may be cheaper when you purchase in bulk, but in reality, you are not really saving money when all you are doing is chucking it in the bin at the end of the week.

If the food still ends up unfit for human consumption, it can be used for feeding livestock, saving precious resources that would have otherwise been used for producing commercial feed. If the food cannot be reused at all, then we should at least try to recycle it in a responsible manner instead of sending it to the landfills where it continues to rot. Did you know that an average home can divert about 150 kg of food waste a year from local waste disposal facilities by adopting home composting?


Be part of the change!

Want to help in the fight against food waste and to protect the planet? Donate to Move For Hunger as we've helped deter of 21 million lbs of food from ending up in landfills while also preventing over 4 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere!