Global Food Waste Essays

This article originally appeared on Wellness Warrior.

Sooner or later, a cluttered fridge demands cleaning. By wading through the remains of meals long past and brave purchases for which inspiration flagged once it got late on a Wednesday night, we help fulfill our perennial and compulsory duty to maintain order and cleanliness in a world that so often doesn't make sense.

If we are feeling particularly pious then we take the industrious route, rinsing out all of the plastic containers so that they can be recycled, and composting everything allowed. Triumph! When the task is complete, we let go of any guilt or frustration over wasted money, time, and food, and we relax into with a sense that all is a little more right with the world. A job well done! Double triumph!

But we could be doing more. While the satisfaction of having a clean fridge should not be taken away from anyone, food waste weighs down our trash bags and feeds our garbage disposals unnecessarily. Waste from commercial and industrial outlets is an even bigger factor in our currently struggling food system.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) estimates that we waste 33% of food produced globally. In the U.S. the estimates are around 40%. Translated into the inputs and outputs of our food system, this amount of food represents on an annual and national scale about 25% of water used, 31% of cropland farmed, 33 million cars-worth of greenhouse gases emitted, 30% of fertilizer used, and 21% of the waste in our landfills. It also accounts for $165 billion lost annually.

All of this food could easily "feed the world." While growing more food is the major focus of big agricultural firms, we may be able to come closer to solving global hunger by consuming food more wisely. One in six Americans does not have enough food to eat. The USDA Economic Research Service estimates U.S. food waste to be 133 billion pounds of food, enough to supply 1,249 calories per capita! Globally, food waste amounts to what some people estimate is enough food to feed 3 billion people. If access to healthy food were increased, 805 million people who are chronically undernourished, and over 2 billion people suffering from micronutrient deficiency, could be fed.

Food waste has a huge environmental impact as well. Food in landfills decomposes anaerobically, creating methane; a greenhouse gas twenty times as harmful to the atmosphere as C02. Landfills account for almost 20% of methane emitted in the U.S., the majority of it coming from food. Limiting food waste could serve well to mitigate climate change

From farm to landfill the most prevalent way food gets wasted in the U.S. is on the retail and consumption-at-home end of the supply chain. Without taking on-farm waste into account (a highly variable and largely under researched phenomenon), retail markets and homes account for just over 60% of total food waste, according to NRDC. The mechanisms behind this waste fit into three broad categories: 1) Uniformity; 2) Expiration dates; 3) A need for abundance.

Uniformity: We like it when things are consistent. Our food has been turned into icons; ideas rather than agricultural products. For example, we like a Granny Smith apple that's crisp, tart, and has a perfectly symmetrical bright green skin. Our penchant for homogeneity, however, is often at odds with Mother Nature's genetic process. Growing conditions often result in produce that doesn't necessarily fit the mold. It is estimated that grocery stores are responsible for throwing away about 10% of the food wasted in the U.S. A lot of this food is thrown away simply because it doesn't look good. A bump here, a bruise there, and it gets tossed in the landfill to rot instead of feeding someone.

Prior to reaching the supermarket, if a fruit or vegetable is misshapen, too small, too big, or abnormal, then a farmer probably can't sell it. In other cases, the market price of a product won't merit the cost of labor to pick it, so it sits and rots. The solution might seem as easy as making donations out of these unwanted field and market leftovers, but it is not that simple. Only about 10% of total wasted food is donated and very little of this is recovered from farms. A recent report for the Food Waste Reduction Alliance found that amongst a host of logistical constraints, 67% of retailers and wholesalers cited liability concerns and 50% of manufacturers cited regulatory constraints as barriers to donating food.

Expiration Dates: We take our perfectly shaped produce home along with our other perfectly consistent food products and inevitably the days go by with us forgetting to use something. Embedded in our DNA is a fear of rotten food, but modern science has solved this dilemma not only with processes and preservatives, but also with expiration dates. From a food waste perspective, expiration dates are more of a problem than you might expect. Emily Broad Leib, lead author of the report "The Dating Game", estimates that about one-third of food thrown out in homes results from expiration dates being misread or misunderstood. The report shows that there is vast confusion amongst what these dates mean from state to state and even from package to package. Multiple label descriptions such as "sell by," "best by," "use by," "freeze by," etc., and lack of uniform federal policy on labeling (each state can make its own rules) adds to the waste. In many cases, the food is fine after the date. Conversely, in some cases, depending on how the food is shipped, excess time out of cold storage could render the food unsafe prior to the date on the package, calling into question just how safe the labels are. Expiration-date waste is not only a problem in homes: in 2001 businesses threw away $900 million worth of food because of expiration dates.

A Need For Abundance: The last and perhaps most obvious category of waste is our need for abundance--to surround ourselves with more than we can possibly eat. Blame it on genetics again: we want to feel safe and secure for the winter, brace for famine, or prepare for some impending apocalypse. This primal need more often than not results in wasted food. We see this in our homes, but also in grocery stores and restaurants. As consumers we expect to see an average 50,000 grocery stores items stocked our local markets' shelves 24-7. Restaurants push large-portion 1,200-calorie meals, and we as consumers demand them by equating "value" with portion size. Our desire to be well fed at any time inevitably results in prepared foods taking over grocery store displays, half-eaten meals at restaurants going into the trash, and leftovers from our fridges joining the dumpster-to-methane cycle.

In summary, some of us have too much homogeneous food to eat and a high degree of confusion about whether or not we can eat it, while some of us are hungry, or filling up on cheap food with little nutritive value.

Luckily, there are solutions, large and small. Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, which takes a deep look at our systemic waste problem in the U.S., says that food waste is inherently linked to our choices:

Broadly speaking, I consider food 'wasted' when an edible item goes unconsumed as a result of human action or inaction. There is culpability in waste. Whether it's from an individual's choice, a business mistake, or a government policy, most food waste stems from decisions made somewhere from farm to fork.

While his begins as a fairly bleak outlook, it also creates an avenue for change: wasting food is a choice. By understanding the inefficiencies in our food system and by looking for ways to improve them, we can change our behavior and prevent wasted food.

We can start on a national scale:

As a consumer, demand that grocery store chains do a better job with their food waste. An inspiring example is France's Intermarché, which recently launched an "Inglorious Fruits and Vegetables" campaign, which was overwhelmingly well-received.

As an advocate, support the work of groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest who are holding restaurants to task for their exorbitantly caloric menu items.

As a voter, choose policies that support food safety, farming and nutrition assistance that will curtail waste and make it easier to glean and donate food. To learn more about your federal representatives' records in relation to food policy, start by heading over to the Food Policy Action Scorecard.

Large-scale solutions will take collective efforts from us all as consumers and voters. Meanwhile, we can do plenty in our own homes, towns and cities to make a difference:

Buy and cook local produce:
  • Local farmers are often happy to sell for a reduced rate the non-uniform "seconds" that grocery stores throw away. Not only will you be preventing waste, you'll also be increasing your farmer's profits by buying something that wouldn't have been sold otherwise.
  • Cooking with your own produce means you don't have to rely on inaccurate expiration dates.
Plan your meals: Avoid the culture of abundance, rely on leftovers more for lunches, and consider making "clean the fridge stews" every few weeks.

Compost: A well-managed compost system has far less climate impact than the methane that will be produced if that same food is anaerobically digested into methane in landfills.

When we act collectively, every step we take, big and small can have a profound effect. Done well, tackling our food waste problem in the U.S. and around the globe will help prevent the buildup of greenhouse gasses, help feed hungry people, save homes and businesses billions of dollars a year, and make it so much easier to clean out the fridge when that inevitable moment comes.


Much of this information comes from a fabulous webinar hosted by the Sustainable Agriculture and Food System Funders. To learn more, check out the presentations and audio files here.

To learn more about food waste, visit these links below.

Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill via NRDC
Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources via UNFAO
Food Waste Reduction Alliance
Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic
Feeding 5000 via Feed Back Global
American Wasteland
Tossed Out via Harvest Public Media
Food Recovery Hierarchy via EPA

Follow Damon Cory-Watson on Twitter:

Stop Wasting Food

By Selina Juul

At my recent TEDx talk, I mentioned that global food waste could feed every starving child, man and woman on this planet – three times over in fact! Here is some food for thought:

A global shame
Globally, human beings produce enough food waste to feed 3 billion people: over 30% of the world's food supply is wasted. The annual food waste in Italy could feed 44 million people – all of Ethiopia's undernourished population. The annual food waste in France is enough to feed the entire population of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Just five per cent of United States' food waste could feed 4 million people for one day.

In 2011, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted that there is enough food in the world, yet millions are still starving – and unless we take action, it will devastate our planet.

"Everybody is waiting for somebody else to take action."

Who could possibly disagree: food waste is a global shame, especially in a world in which over a billion people are starving. And yet: everybody is waiting for somebody else to take action.

Can we send our leftovers to starving children in Africa? No, that is clearly not a permanent or sustainable solution. The problem in Africa is food loss. The amount of food lost per year in sub-Saharan Africa could feed 48 million people. Due to poor harvesting facilities, storage, packaging, distribution and the lack of a stable infrastructure, good food is lost in the fields before it even has a chance to reach peoples' bellies.

Food loss and food waste
In the West we waste approximately 40% of our food. This 40% happens at the end of the food value chain – by retailers and consumers. The same percentage of food, 40%, is lost in developing countries, though here the food losses happen at the beginning of the value chain. If we look at global food wasters, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), we find that Western populations, such as EU member states, top the list. Here approximately 179 kg is wasted per capita per year. In developing countries, only 6-11 kg is wasted per capita per year.

"But how does the food we waste in our homes in the Western world actually affect developing countries and hungry children in Africa?"

This global imbalance must be corrected. But how does the food we waste in our homes in the Western world actually affect developing countries and hungry children in Africa? Does it actually matter?

Indirectly, it does.

I participated in a panel debate during the People's Meeting (Folkemødet) in Bornholm at which the Secretary-General of the Danish Red Cross, Anders Ladekarl, said the following:

"The Western world's overconsumption of food is affecting global food prices: The more we in the West consume (and the more we throw out), the greater global demand for food becomes – and the higher food prices rise globally."

Let's imagine a pile of bananas, grown and produced in a developing country, transported all the way across the globe to a Western country just to be wasted because of some silly cosmetic reason. People in the very same developing country lack food. Imagine looking those hungry people in the eyes and telling them that the good bananas grown in their very own country are being thrown away just as fast they arrive in the Western world.

"Imagine looking those hungry people in the eyes and telling them that the good bananas
grown in their very own country are being thrown away just as fast they arrive in the Western world."

Food is the new gold
At my most recent panel debate at the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition 4th Annual Forum on Food and Nutrition, I addressed the food challenges of future generations. One of the speakers at the Forum, globally respected author and founder of the Worldwatch Institute, Lester R. Brown, mentioned that food was the new oil. I would say, however, that food is the new gold.

Why? Because fighting food scarcity will be one of the central geopolitical issues of the future.

1st fact: Population growth. By 2050, the earth's population will reach 9 billion people. By then, food production must be increased by 70 per cent to meet demand. Today we already produce enough food waste to feed 3 billion human beings. Reducing food waste should number among our key focal areas. The UN estimates that in just 20 years, the earth's population will need at least 50 per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water.

2nd fact: Climate change. The increasing changes to our climate affect the world's agriculture and thus, the production of food. Floods, droughts and other increasingly irregular climate patterns will only worsen in future. More and more farmers are being forced to use GMOs and pesticides to ensure the survival of their harvest due to a changing climate, which in turn affects the loss of biodiversity.

3rd fact: Increasing food prices. This third fact has its roots in the 1st and 2nd facts, but additional factors include: the financial crisis, land grabbing (and the resulting desertification and deforestation), the world trade market structure, the global imbalance in food distribution, global and local food policy making, a lack of infrastructure, and a general lack of transparency in the food production value chain from farm to fork.

We must remember that there is enough food in the world, more than enough. Yet billions are still starving.

Who is to blame?
So, who should we point the finger at? Who is to blame? The industry? The politicians? The farmers? The retailers? Ourselves?

"Sometimes I wonder if the global food waste scandal is a self-perpetuating system."

At a conference in Bonn where I was a panel speaker, I learned from a fellow panel speaker from sub-Saharan Africa that African countries' agriculture often needs aid from the Western world. Unfortunately, this agricultural aid is often not used to improve agriculture. Instead, the money is appropriated by local politicians due to the lack of local infrastructure. In this particular case, a local politician bought 4 limousines from the agricultural aid money. This demonstrates that people on the ground are needed in Africa too in order to ensure that the money is indeed used to improve agriculture.

Sometimes I wonder if the global food waste scandal is a self-perpetuating system. Why have we, the consumers, become accustomed to such high standards that we cannot accept wonky fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets? Our choices affect the entire food production value chain and force farmers to toss out perfectly good fruits and vegetables because of the way they look.

Would there be a paradigm shift if Western countries were be able to cut their food waste? Would it affect developing countries? Would there be enough food for everyone? Is it even possible?

Yes, I think it is.

"If every single human being on this planet had enough food, it would change our societies. It would stop wars, put an end to suffering and even change the course of human history."

Imagine if every child, man and woman on this planet had enough food. Imagine what it would do to our human civilization. If every single human being on this planet had enough food, it would change our societies. It would stop wars, put an end to suffering and even change the course of human history. It could create a paradigm shift, a new era of peace on this planet. And I strongly believe that we can achieve that paradigm shift. That is why I have been working – for over 4 years and putting in over 40 volunteer hours a week – on the Stop Wasting Food movement. Because I strongly believe that humanity can and will come up with a solution. And I think about it every day.

We must remember that food is the most powerful basic necessity for human beings. It is what keeps us going. It is what is keeping us alive. Food waste is a clear indication that there is something fundamentally wrong with our civilization.

Look at nature: There is no food waste in nature whatsoever. Everything is used and recycled. Every resource is used intelligently. The only species on this planet unable to cut down on food waste is us humans.

You are in control
So, what are the solutions to the global food waste scandal? Are we still waiting for everybody else to do something about it?

Consumers have the power to change the entire system. And it would take just one simple personal step: stop wasting food. Will you continue to waste your food – and your money – after reading my article? Don't you think it's time for action?

"Do the industry and the retailers dictate your shopping habits – or do you?"

Buy only what you actually need. Cook leftovers. Share food with your neighbours. Use it up. It is the simple wisdom of our grandmas, the very same grandmas who admonished us as children not to waste food and to think of all the hungry children in Africa. Do the industry and the retailers dictate your shopping habits – or do you? Who is actually in control of this situation? You are of course. You are in control.

Demand wonky fruit and vegetable in the stores. Don't fall for quantity discounts if you don't need that amount of food. Don't overstuff your plate at the cafeteria if you already know that you can only eat half. Ask for a doggy bag at a restaurant.

And speak your mind: Encourage positive action everywhere! Encourage the food industry to donate edible surplus food to charities. Join consumer movements. Encourage politicians to act.

The European Alliance against Food Waste
You see, I am neither a celebrity chef nor a politician. I am just a simple consumer. In 2008, I got very tired of food waste. I created a group on Facebook: "Stop Wasting Food". Today, over four years later, the Stop Wasting Food movement Denmark (Stop Spild Af Mad) has become Denmark's largest non-profit consumer movement against food waste. We now number over 7,000 members and enjoy the support of high-ranking politicians who even include our former Prime Minister. We have published an award-winning leftovers cookbook; we have brought the topic of food waste to numerous Danish and international print media, radio and TV; we distribute good surplus food to homeless people; we have convinced a large retail chain, Rema 1000, to drop all quantity discounts; and we have helped put the topic of food waste on the UN and EU agendas.

And we are all just ordinary consumers, ordinary people. But ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

Consumers cannot fight food waste alone though. All the stakeholders in the food production value chain must be involved: farmers, industry, retailers, canteens, restaurants, and food services.

A new EU project involving a team of 21 partners (including the Stop Wasting Food movement) will take a joint stand against food waste. Food Use for Social Innovation by Optimising Waste Prevention Strategies (FUSIONS) is a 4-year European project to combat food waste. The 21 partners from the 13 European countries involved include universities, institutions, NGOs, companies, and FAO itself. The project has been funded by the European Commission's FP7 and more than 80 European organizations have expressed their support for FUSIONS. It is the world's first joint and transnational action to end food waste.

The project's initial objective is to standardize the measurement of food waste. The next goal is to create a European platform of governmental and non-governmental organizations and companies from the food chain, i.e. industry, retailers and consumer organizations. The platform aims to provide simplified data that can identify and evaluate new initiatives for reducing food waste. The results will be disseminated to the public, and technical and policy recommendations will be developed for the entire value chain and the EU. The platform will then activate, engage, and support the main stakeholders in the European food value chain in order to deliver a 50 per cent reduction in food waste by 2020.

Can FUSIONS help feed hungry children in Africa? In the long run, it can.

Transparency across the entire food production value chain must be achieved. And FUSIONS can help create that transparency.

"Don't wait for the industry, the EU, politicians or someone else to act. Take action yourself."

But don't wait for FUSIONS, the industry, the EU, politicians or someone else to act. Take action yourself. No matter who we are, we are all consumers, we all eat, we all waste food - and we are all a part of the problem. And thus, we are also part of the solution.

The next time you are considering feeding good food to your rubbish bin, ask yourself: how many starving African families would approve of your actions?

Not one.

There, you have your answer.

You have the power. You have the knowledge. Don't wait for someone else to take action. Do it yourself.

Stop wasting food.

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