The extent of food waste

Food waste is typically not understood to be as serious of a problem as it is. The immediate image of food waste is the food leftover on your plate at the end of a meal. The food you’re too full to finish, or the food you’d rather not eat now. But this amount, each person’s wasted food at the end of their meal, is minuscule to the amount of food that is wasted from the farm, to the manufacturing plants, to grocery stores and restaurants throughout the globe. 

In the United States alone, 40% of the food supply is thrown away (Mandyck, Food Foolish). This otherwise perfectly edible food goes to sit in a landfill while it could be served better by helping to feed those in need. This number is so shocking partly due to our naivety of the food supply process. How food gets from farms to our table is usually a mystery. Some insight into the process helps to uncover where some of the waste comes from.

1. Farming Level

At the farming level, there are two ways that crops can be wasted. The first reason is that not all crops that are grown are harvested as it’s difficult for farmers to calculate the exact demand each year, which might mean it’s cheaper for farmers to leave crops untouched in the field than to spend the labor to harvest them if they won’t be bought. The second reason is that between the farming and packing stages, some fruits and vegetables are deemed inedible due to their appearance and are thus thrown out. 

2. Distribution Level

At the distribution level, food can be lost if a shipment that needs to be kept refrigerated is kept too long and needs to be rejected. Although this technology to keep food refrigerated is much more advanced it still affects the supply. 

3. Store Level

At the store level, the USDA estimates that supermarkets have a loss of about $15 billion yearly due to unsold fruits and vegetables. Typically these supermarkets view loss as a part of doing business and they welcome large losses as a sign of productivity. 

All of the ways that food is lost along the supply chain contributes to the amount of food that is wasted. This waste thus adds up and has dire consequences for our environment, our economy, and world hunger. 

1. Environment

“If food waste were a country, it would rank 3rd for greenhouse gas emissions,” the United Nations has reported. Food waste releases methane gas, which is more damaging to the environment and our ozone layer than CO2. They also note that about 1.3 billion tons of food are thrown away globally each year; this reprints about 3.3 billion tons in carbon dioxide emissions. Not to mention the wasted agricultural land that is used to grow food that is then thrown away. It’s about 28% of the world’s agricultural land. 

2. Economic

The United States spends $218 billion a year to grow, process and transport food that is then wasted. This equals about 1.3% of the GDP. The economic loss is incredibly high, especially if the parameters are set to include the rest of the world as food waste totals about $750 billion yearly. 

3. Poverty

One in six Americans are food insecure, a surprising statistic that only makes food waste that much more difficult to comprehend. The International Food Policy Research Institute reported that for every dollar a country invests in nutrition they have an average return of 16 times. In essence, the food that is wasted annually throughout the world could easily be better used by helping to feed those who are malnourished. 

As we’ve come to understood exactly how food waste occurs, and in what areas it affects, it’s important to enact change in our inefficient systems. Food for All plans on doing just so. 

1. Dana Gunders. “Wasted: How America is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” August 2012. NRDC Issue Paper

2. “Impact on natural resources.” Food Wastage Footprint 2013pg. 55.

3. Tracie McMillan. “The New Face of Hunger.” National Geographic, 2014.

4. John Mandyck. “The $1 Trillion Mountain: The Actual Cost of Food Waste.” Sustainability View, August 2016.

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