Global Food Wastage: Cost and Ecological Impact

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Global Food Wastage: Cost and Ecological Impact

By 2030, it is projected that the amount of wasted food will reach 2.1 billion tons per year. / Photo by: Andriy Popov via 123rf


Every year, about 1.3 billion tons of food go to waste around the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reported that the amount of food wasted every year is one-third of all food produced for human consumption—more than enough to feed almost 815 million hungry people worldwide. It also costs us over $2.6 trillion annually.

Although it is difficult to pinpoint when and how food waste starts, it is deemed closely linked to globalization. Large amounts of food lost or wasted occur during the long journey of bringing food to our tables. Most of the time, meat, dairy, vegetables, and fruits are particularly vulnerable. In industrialized countries, a major reason why food is wasted is because of its abundance. 

According to an article by Move Hunger, a non-profit organization that works with relocation companies to collect non-perishable food items, a 2018 study reported that since 1974, food waste has increased by 50 percent. In the US alone, 45 percent of the food produced is either left to rot in the field or ended up in a landfill, and more than 365 million pounds of food are wasted every day, which is enough to fill an entire football stadium. 

Americans throw out about 15 to 25 percent of the food they purchase. This accounts for over 400 pounds of wasted food per person annually, with an estimated total cost of more than $200 billion. Although consumers are primarily the ones to blame, the supply chain with restaurants, retailers, and distributors is also part of the problem. It was reported that 52 billion pounds of food each year is wasted by food manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants. 

Aside from that, 43 percent of food waste comes from households, consumer businesses (40 percent), farms (16 percent), manufacturers (2 percent). These figures show that large amounts of food are being wasted at every level of the supply chain. If this continues or increases further in the coming years, the UN estimated that an additional 42 million people will go hungry by 2050. 

Why is Food Wasted?

In the US, Americans often waste so much food because they have high standards for what they eat. For instance, they tend to throw fruits or vegetables that aren't flawless although they are still perfectly fine. Due to the selective nature of consumers, more than 20 billion pounds of fruit and vegetables are not harvested every year.

Another reason why food is wasted is that since the 1970s, refrigerators have grown in size by 15 percent. Because of that, consumers tend to fill all of the space in their refrigerators, which results in a greater chance of food going to waste. 

Aside from refrigerators, the size of the average dinner plate has also grown by 36 percent. As a result, there are larger servings in every meal, which increases the chance that all of that food will not be consumed. According to an article by Reset, a not-for-profit organization that showcases trends and case studies, buy-one-get-one deals and all-you-can-eat buffets are also encouraging people to buy more than they can eat, which means that most likely, there will be leftovers that will just be discarded.

Impacts of Food Waste on Our Environment

By 2030, it is projected that the amount of wasted food will reach 2.1 billion tons per year. This affects our society, specifically our environment. According to an article by the Los Angeles Times, a daily newspaper, the UN reported that at least 8.4 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions worldwide came from the agriculture sector. Currently, emissions caused by food waste add about 4.4 gigatons of greenhouse gasses annually.

A report recently published by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global research non-profit organization, said that it will take every one of us to reduce the amount of food wasted. As Craig Hanson, who studies sustainable food systems at WRI, said, “The problem is dispersed across so many actors, and we all play a role. Everyone has to do their part and follow through. It’s got to be a full-chain kind of approach.”

A report from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization showed that a lot of environmental issues are deeply connected to food waste. Researchers found out that an estimated 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases are caused by food produced, including those that are not eaten. The blue water footprint of food wastage across the world, such as the consumption of surface and groundwater resources, is about 250 cubic kilometers. This is three times the volume of Lake Geneva or equivalent to the water discharge of the Volga River every year.

Moreover, it was reported that food being dumped into landfills can worsen groundwater pollution. The water coming from rains on these landfills can produce toxic chemicals, such as ammonia. These chemicals can reach our bodies of water, such as rivers or oceans, which can endanger the organisms living in those habitats. At the same time, they can leach into our drinking water supplies. 

An article by Triple Pundit, a new-media company for highly conscious business leaders, almost 1.4 billion hectares of land is being occupied by produced but uneaten food annually, which represents almost 30 percent of the world’s agricultural land area. While 46 percent of the world's food wastage occurs "downstream" during the processing, distribution, and consumption stages, it was reported that 54 percent happens "upstream" at the production, post-harvest handling, and storage. 

The FAO also reported that the direct economic consequences every year of this issue is worth $750 billion. Achim Steiner, UN Environment Program (UNEP) executive director, stated that this is a great opportunity for countries to shift toward a resource-efficient, low-carbon, and inclusive green economy. As FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva said, "We simply cannot allow one-third of all the food we produce to go to waste or be lost because of inappropriate practices when 870 million people go hungry every day."


Researchers found out that an estimated 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases are caused by food produced, including those that are not eaten. / Photo by: Anupong Sakoolchai via 123rf




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