Photo: J Bloom/Flickr
By now anyone following environmental and social justice issues should probably be aware that food waste is a big deal. A new report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, however, puts the global impact of food waste in an entirely new light. as one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet.
According to the Food Wastage Footprint report, if you think of the total volume of food waste as a nation, its carbon emissions would be surpassed only by those of China and the United States, the two largest carbon emitters.
Each year some 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted, adding up to 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and costing a total of $750 billion. That's roughly one-third of all the food produced for human consumption.
Framing food waste as an emission sector against national emissions isn't an entirely fair comparison—national emissions comprise many things, and the global emissions from burning fossil fuels is far, far larger than any single nation's emission—but it is dramatic way to illustrate the scope of the issue.
Where's all that food going?
Slightly over half of the waste occurs during production, after harvesting, or being stored prior to being delivered to consumers. The rest occurs during processing, distribution, and in the form of wasted leftovers.
But the manner in which the waste occurs isn't uniform across the globe. In wealthy nations more is wasted at the retail and consumer level whereas in poor nations a greater proportion of food waste occurs during agricultural production, and just 4-16 percent of food is wasted at markets or in people's homes.
The FAO points out, regarding environmental impact, the farther along in the food production-distribution-consumption chain the waste occurs, the greater the effect, as all the effort and energy that goes into each product is wasted.
And so how can we stop this waste?
At the consumer level, behavior has to be changed, the FAO says, with better planning for shopping to reduce over-purchasing, and overreaction to 'best-before' dates is minimized. Also, we need to reconsider aesthetic standards for produce, which now lead retailers to reject otherwise perfectly edible food.
At the production level, the FAO notes that if farmers join together in cooperatives or other professional associations, food losses can be greatly reduced, by improving their ability to bring products to market, as well as more efficient planning.
At the post-consumer level, more food waste needs to be recycled and turned into biogas, or where that is not possible, composted. Where neither is an option, incineration for energy production is a last resort, the FAO says, as doing so will at least reduce one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions from food waste, the methane created as food decomposes in landfills.
Though framed mostly in an environmental context, FAO Director-General José Granziano da Silva reminds us that "870 million people go hungry everyday."
With that many people going hungry already, and the human population still rising, perhaps topping 9 billion before mid-century, the high percentage of food wasted seems like an ever-heavier liability. ANot taking into account reductions in food waste, in order to feed that many more people we'll need 60-110 percent more food.
It's not impossible, and can be accomplished through a combination of increased crop yields, intensifying production on existing crop land, or putting more land under cultivation, which is rarely an environmentalist's favorite option. As it stands now, crop yields aren't increasing rapidly enough, and several key crops are likely to see reduced yields due to climate change.
Reducing the amount of food wasted is perhaps obviously another crucial part of feeding a growing world. While food waste inherently can never be reduced to zero, minimizing waste at the pre-consumer level—and at home—takes some of the pressure off increasing production.