Despite the fact that 795 million people in the world go hungry, one-third of the world’s produced food goes to waste. If just one quarter of the food currently lost or wasted was saved, it would be enough to feed these people. Reducing food waste also has profound impacts on the environment: the carbon footprint of food waste accounts for an astounding 3.3 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, one third of fossil fuel emissions each year. Food waste is a moral and environmental problem that humans could address by adopting more efficient food donation and redistribution programs, developing more advanced agricultural technology in lower income countries, and promoting consumer sustainability campaigns.
The causes of food waste differ greatly in developing countries compared to the developed world. In developing countries, most of the food waste occurs in upstream phases of production due to lack of infrastructure and improper harvest techniques. Urbanization made this issue more prominent: developing countries needed to extend their already-limited food supply chains to reach urban areas. Adjustments had to be made in roads, transportation and marketing infrastructure. Urbanization happened very rapidly, and adjustments were not able to keep up with the change in demographics. Moreover, supply chains need to further expand to accommodate the increased globalization of trade. Even today, post-harvest infrastructure and technologies are limited because farming is still largely small-scale.
The UN forecasts the global population to reach 9.8 billion by 2050. With the majority of the growth concentrated in developing countries, the need to develop sustainable agriculture and food production is as pressing as ever. In Africa and Asia, there is a call for a second Green Revolution based on technological and ecological developments that will diversify local farming systems to increase nutritional self-sufficiency. The revolution will be most effective if farms consolidate into larger, more productive units to make the food production chain more efficient through economies of scale and thus help eliminate food waste in the earlier stages of production. There are concerns that consolidating farms will displace workers, but consolidation can happen naturally as the agricultural population declines due to rural to urban migrations and entrepreneurial farmers buy or lease plots from their neighbors. Consolidation should occur through incentives or market forces rather than coercion.
Although developed countries such as the United States already have advanced agricultural practices and effective food supply chains, their food waste is still astronomical. The average American wastes over 610 pounds of food per year, third in food waste to only Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Unlike food waste in developing countries, in higher income countries, the majority of food is wasted later on in the supply chain at the consumer and retail level. Consumers have the ability to dramatically reduce their food waste by adjusting their shopping and eating habits, but doing so will require purposeful effort and lifestyle changes.
In the United States, thirty to forty percent of the food supply goes uneaten. In 2010 alone, American food waste accumulated to approximately 133 billion pounds and was worth $161 billion. The wasted food is the single biggest occupant of landfills. The food waste sitting in landfills quickly generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Landfills are the third largest source of methane in the United States, representing the detrimental effects that wasting food at the consumer level of the supply chain has on the environment. At the very least, consumers should make an effort to recycle their wasted food to help reduce their the greenhouse gas emissions.
Produce waste is a particularly imperative issue in the United States. According to a 2016 Guardian report, over 50% of produce is thrown away. One reason why Americans are wasting so much produce is relative cheapness of groceries. Bloomberg reports that the average American only spends 11.2% of their income on food, the smallest share out of all countries in the world. Agricultural subsidies are a contributing factor to the low cost of food. Because groceries are “cheap”, households buy more. In addition, the lack of uniformity with food expiration labels leads many consumers to be cautious and throw out food that in reality is perfectly safe and fresh to eat. Congress is working to establish more consistency in food labeling through considering the Food Date Labeling Act. Another contributing factor to produce waste is the obsession with its aesthetic. If produce has any blemishes, it is rejected.
Although the United States still needs to make major cultural, business, and lifestyle changes to diminish food waste, the issue has not gone unnoticed. In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency to launch a food waste reduction goal to reduce waste in half by 2030. The U.S. Food Waste Challenge is a private and public partnership that calls on individuals and firms on all levels on the food chain to reduce their food waste. To help inform and encourage others to reduce their waste, the various entities share the ways they reduce, recover and recycle their food waste. Other efforts to reach the goal include educating consumers on food waste on ChooseMyPlate.gov, connecting produce importers with charities, recovering and reducing food that has been removed from commerce, and conducting research on new technologies to reduce food waste.
The large scale of global and American food waste can be daunting. However, there are ways people can do their part to help eliminate food waste in their own communities and households. In Charlottesville, the city is committed to sustainable waste management. A major way the city fulfills this commitment is through its composting services. Households and businesses can drop off their compost at the City Market and the McIntire Recycling Center free of cost. Composting is a way to recycle kitchen and garden waste and preserve nutrients. Charlottesville could further improve its sustainability by adopting similar composting systems of Seattle. Seattle provides a composting service that collects compost regularly with garage pick up. With these services in Seattle, composting takes very little effort. Hopefully Charlottesville can expand its composting services to adopt a similar system to that of Seattle.
Charlottesville’s food waste reduction efforts extend to the University of Virginia. UVA encourages recycling and waste minimization by having recycling bins near every trashcan on grounds, reusable water bottle stations and to-go container programs, and composting at on-grounds dining options. Additionally, the University has a waste reduction task force that encourages sustainability by defining goals and actions such as the Zero Waste Event Guide and the Residential Recycling Guide.
Opportunities to practice sustainability exist, and it is crucial to take advantage of these opportunities and deliberately act to reduce food waste. Although food waste occurs on a global scale, individuals making changes in their local communities will add up and help put waste reduction on the agenda. It is a social, moral, and environmental responsibility of individuals and governments to make efforts to reduce food waste. The excess of food waste is a solvable problem that needs to be prioritized on global, domestic and local levels.