World Environment Day on June 5th is focusing international attention on food waste. Globally, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that roughly one third of all food is wasted every year. In developing countries, more than 40 percent of food waste happens on farms, during storage, and in processing. But in industrialized countries, approximately 40 percent of food waste occurs in stores and at home. FAO estimates that consumers in industrialized countries waste close to the same amount of food each year as the net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. These losses represent more than just food waste. In the United States, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that the amount of food wasted nationally is equivalent to US$165 billion and 25 percent of the country’s freshwater use.
"Most people don't realize that food waste goes beyond the moral implications – wasting food when one billion people go to bed hungry every night. It’s also a major environmental problem," says Ellen Gustafson, co-founder of Food Tank.
The U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that global food production accounts for 70 percent of fresh water use and 80 percent of deforestation. Food production is also the largest single driver of biodiversity loss and creates at least 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to wasting labor and resources, as food decomposes in landfills it produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times as damaging as carbon dioxide.
Food waste is insidious—with some lost in the field, in storage, in transport, and at home. There is also a staggering amount of deliberate food waste. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers estimates that 30 percent of vegetables in the United Kingdom go unharvested because of aesthetic standards. These “wonky” vegetables end up rotting in fields, rather than reaching dinner tables.
This year for World Environment Day, the Think.Eat.Save – Reduce Your Foodprint! campaign is bringing attention to the extent of global food waste. From farm to fork, there is plenty that can be done to reduce and even eliminate these losses, and small reductions can offer big rewards. Food waste expert Tristram Stuart estimates that reclaiming 25 percent of the food wasted in the U.S. and Europe could end global malnutrition.
“The one good thing about food waste is that it’s like low hanging fruit,” says Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of Food Tank. “If we’re really interested in protecting the environment while making sure that farmers are making money and improving food security, then preventing food waste is a great way to solve multiple problems.”
As a countdown to World Environment Day, Food Tank: The Food Think Tank is covering the ways in which farmers, food manufacturers, and eaters can reduce their food waste footprints. Here are 10 ways to start eliminating food waste:
1. Use “ugly” produce
In Kenya, strict European aesthetic standards force vegetable exporters to waste up to 40 percent of their harvest. Tristram Stuart’s Feeding the 5,000 is urging markets and governments to revise these standards. They are also reviving the practice of gleaning—organizing volunteers to harvest cosmetically imperfect produce for donation to schools and food banks.
2. Donate unused food throughout the production line
The Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition (BCFN) estimates that food waste costs in Italy alone are equivalent to US$13 billion in the field, US$1.5 billion in processing, and nearly US$2 billion in distribution. Last Minute Market (LMM) works with farmers, processing centers, grocery stores, and other food sellers to reclaim these losses. Founded by BCFN Advisor Andrea Segrè, LMM now runs food donation programs in over 40 Italian communities.
3. Trust the five senses
Despite what many consumers think, “sell by,” “best by,” and “use by” dates are unregulated and do not indicate food safety. Clarifying these labels, according to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in the U.K., could reduce food waste by up to 20 percent. One of the best ways to tell if food has gone bad is not by using some fancy technology, but by simply putting human senses to work. If food smells bad or looks bad, it’s probably not good to eat.
4. Request smaller portions
According to NRDC food waste expert Dana Gunders, the average U.S. pizza slice grew 70 percent in calories between 1982 and 2002, and the average chicken Caesar salad doubled in calories. Portion increases are bad for both our waistlines and our waste footprints. New campaigns, such as Go Halfsies and Satisfeito, are promoting half-portions and making it easier for diners to order less.
5. Invest in on-site preservation and storage
FAO reports that cowpea farmers in Ghana who can afford to store their crops still lose 10, 20, or even 50 percent of their product in a single month. Perdue University’s Perdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) is reducing these losses with cheap, triple-layer plastic bags that protect cowpeas for months without expensive pesticides. The program expects to save farmers at least half a billion dollars per year over all.
6. Store food properly at home
U.S. families throw away around 25 percent of the food they buy, losing up to US$2,275 every year. The Love Food Hate Waste campaign recommends reducing waste by learning the best ways to store food at home.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that food sent to landfills creates 16 percent of U.S. methane emissions. But composting centers can help turn food waste into a valuable resource. Compost for Brooklyn turned an abandoned lot into a compost site and native plant garden. There, the organization hosts neighborhood events, educational programs, and gardening workshops, while reclaiming up to 770 pounds of waste per week.
8. Improve family farmers’ access to education
The Post Harvest Education Foundation offers training materials, e-learning programs, and mentoring opportunities that help farmers around the world prevent food waste. Their postharvest management guide is available in 10 languages, featuring topics such as how to choose the best time for harvest, and the advantages of different transportation methods.
9. Establish low-waste incentives
Increased awareness about food waste can turn retailers’ pro-waste incentives into low-waste incentives. Danish food expert Selina Juul’s Stop Wasting Food campaign inspired Danish supermarket Rema 1000 to replace buy-one-get-one-free and other quantity-based discounts with general discounts in all of its stores. Similarly, the US$16 billion grocery chain Stop and Shop/Giant Landover found that reductions in overstocking not only cut waste, but saved around US$100 million annually, and improved customer satisfaction by decreasing spoilage.
10. Collect and distribute food waste data
Collecting and displaying data on food waste is critical to changing wasteful habits. U.S. college students are helping to lead the charge, challenging universities to measure and reduce their food waste footprints. A great resource for others looking to get involved is food waste expert Jonathan Bloom’s blog, Wasted Food, which features weekly updates about new data, waste reduction campaigns, and tips for local action.
On farms, in homes, at schools, and in businesses, we can all help find ways to prevent food waste. In the countdown to World Environment Day on June 5th, Food Tank will feature more information about food waste reduction on its website.