Most of us don’t think twice about tossing out leftover food once we’ve eaten our fill. Even if you save your leftovers, how often do they actually get eaten? Do you think about the impact of throwing out that bowl of leftover spaghetti or do you just toss it in the trash bin and move on with your day?
On a global scale, food waste has a much more dramatic impact than we had previously discovered, both before the food makes its way to the grocery stores and after.
Did you know that of all of the food produced worldwide, more than one third of it never makes it to your local grocery store or market?
Aside from the obvious fact that much of this food could be used to combat starvation around the world, what sort of impact does this have on the global environment?
How Much Waste?
One third of our global food production going to waste seems like a big number to wrap our heads around — let’s make it a little simpler.
Currently, there are about 7.4 billion people on the planet. Two billion of those people could be fed for an entire year on what the U.S. alone wastes in one calendar year. Globally, that’s nearly $750 billion of food every year.
While this seems like a catastrophic waste of resources, the disposal of perfectly edible food is not the only negative in this food waste nightmare.
The biggest impact from the amount of edible food being wasted each year occurs after it’s already been shipped off to the local landfill. Most organic matter, when it decomposes, produces methane and other greenhouse gasses.
Rotting food waste puts around 140 million tons of extra greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere every year. That’s about 1.5 percent of the total greenhouse gasses emitted every year around the world.
Water, Water Everywhere
Global warming isn’t the only concern when it comes to the effects of food waste. Growing all that food takes a lot of water, so each pound of food that is wasted also wastes the water that was used to help it grow.
Overall, we’re wasting about 250 cubic km of our limited groundwater resources annually, or about three times the volume of Lake Geneva.
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Where Will We Be In 10 Years?
Assuming that the numbers we’ve quoted so far stay the same or do not increase over the next decade, we’re looking at a dramatic impact over the next decade, including:
- 4 billion tons of additional greenhouse gasses released into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of adding another 35 million cars to the road.
- 2,500 cubic kilometers of water wasted. Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of water used globally, so by wasting food we’re wasting water as well.
- 4 billion hectares of land will be used to grow our food waste — many of these hectares will later be abandonded due to poor land management techniques. You can’t grow in barren soil, after all.
- Between 44 and 72 percent of native species will be threatened, many becoming endangered due to natural ecosystems being decimated to create new farm land.
These numbers are scary enough by themselves, but we will likely not see these results in the next decade or two. Instead, it may look even worse.
According to the UN, food production will have to increase by more than 50 percent from its current production numbers in order to make up for new demand between now and 2050. That’s an additional 50 percent that you can add to all those scary statistics we just listed.
How Can We Reduce Food Waste?
Many of the changes that need to be made to reduce food waste must be done at the production level. Things like refusing to waste fruits and vegetables just because they’re ‘ugly’ — as they still taste the same — or allowing food to sit on the shelves until it spoils just so the shelves can be kept full need to be stopped. The key, as many industry specialists are now learning, is to balance production and demand. If there is more food than is needed, divert the additional supplies to those in need.
You can take small steps at home as well, including shopping according to a meal plan rather than buying in bulk, and composting any organic waste rather than sending it to the landfill. Composting is simple, easy and can be a great source of nutrition for your yard or garden.
In the end, it’s up to us as the consumers to stop food waste as much as it is up to the farmer who grows our foods or the supermarkets where we purchase them. It’s not going to be a one-person job, but if we can all work together, stopping or at least reducing food waste may be possible much sooner than we think.