Food

5 Ways Wasting Food Hurts the Environment (and 5 Ways You Can Fix It)

Americans waste up to 60 million tons of food a year.

Photo Credit: nito/Shutterstock

It’s the secret shame of many Americans: The half-forgotten perishables in your refrigerator and pantry that are now turning pretty colors or giving off the fragrance of a corpse.

Those of us who feel pangs of guilt over wasted food are sadly in good company: Some estimates reveal Americans waste as much as 60 million tons of food a year (for various reasons, some simply because of extremely high standards set by American stores). This fact is shameful enough given the plight of world hunger, but what many of us may not realize is that wasted food also has a harmful effect on the environment.

Here are the five biggest ways wasted food hurts the environment—and five ways we can combat this problem and make it better for millions of people worldwide.

1. Wasted food wastes water.

Whether from irrigation, spraying, pouring, or some other means, water is essential to agriculture, not to mention the feeding of animals who give us meat, fish and dairy.

But by throwing out millions of tons of food, we also waste uncounted millions of gallons of water that was used to plant, grow, sustain, or otherwise produce food.

Fruit and vegetables are among the most water-laden food products, because they contain more water. (For example, one bag of apples is about 81 percent water.) But meat products are the heaviest water users, because the animals drink a lot of water—and more importantly, because so much water is needed for the grain that becomes their feed. It takes about 8 to 10 times more water to produce meat than grain.

All told, if 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted worldwide each year, most estimates place the water in that amount of food to be 45 trillion gallons—or 24 percent of all water used for agriculture. And remember that 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture!

2. Wasted food releases methane.

When food is thrown out, it eventually makes its way to landfills. As that food begins to decompose, it releases methane gas.

Methane is a greenhouse gas that adversely affects the earth’s climate and temperature. Here’s why the millions of tons of food wasting in American landfills should concern you:

  • Methane is more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than CO2—about 25 times more effective.
  • Methane accounts for about 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Much methane, as well as other adversely affective gases, has already been released in the production process. The wasted food is now adding to that.

Less wasted food means we release less methane gas, which is way better for the environment.

3. Wasted food wastes oil.

This is another production side of the waste epidemic. Oil, diesel and fossil fuels are required to grow, transport, store, and cook food. Think of the harvesting machinery that has to be powered, the vehicles taking the food from the farm to the warehouse to the store, the machinery that is used to sort, clean, package, or otherwise prepare the food so it can be sold. Much of this machinery requires massive amounts of oil, diesel and other fuels to function.

To waste millions of tons (in America) or billions (worldwide) each year also means all of the oil and fuel that has gone into the production of said food is wasted.

Using that fuel in the first place can release harmful amounts of greenhouse gases into the environment, combined with the other harmful amounts released from the decomposing food already in landfills, and all of the future decomposing food that will yet be wasted.

Wasting fuel and oil both at the front (production) and the back (decomposition) end by not eating the food we purchase has a hidden but costly impact on the environment.

4. Wasted food wastes land.

Land use for food falls into two main categories: The land used for production, specifically the crops and grassland used in the actual growing (or raising, in the case of livestock), and the land used for retaining food that has been thrown out.

The irresponsible use of food products has an adverse impact on the physical land itself.

If you recall your high school science classes, you may have heard the terms arable land and non-arable land. This simply means land that can grow crops (arable), or land that cannot (non-arable). This factor is important for evaluating how food waste affects land.

Most of the land needed to produce milk and meat is non-arable (think meadows, fields, etc.). It’s perfect for livestock, but terrible for growing crops. But most of the food wasted worldwide, regardless of the type of land, is meat.

About 900 million hectares of non-arable land are used in the production of the world’s meat products. When you count all of the land needed to produce other foods, like the millions of pounds of fruits and vegetables we waste each year, the use of land skyrockets.

The problem lies in both the waste of the food (so the land is being used for an ultimately pointless purpose) and the fact that land, if not cared for, loses its ability to yield over time—called degradation. Eventually the land produces far less than can sustain the people living in the region.

study on food waste by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that about 99 percent of the waste occurs on land with extremely high levels of degradation—which puts undue stress on land that has already worked hard to produce food for us.

5. Wasted food harms biodiversity.

Biodiversity is simply a fancy word for the diversity of life in an ecosystem or environment—the full spectrum of life across different species and kinds of organisms. This is a hidden but real cost of food waste: it decimates biodiversity in a number of ways:

  • Deforestation, especially in tropical areas, destroys natural flora and fauna (sometimes to the point of extinction), in the name of creating more land for food production.
  • To increase production of livestock, natural land is turned into pastures, which besides deforestation also impacts biodiversity by the increase of livestock; the more livestock graze and range on an area, the less natural and diverse the area becomes.
  • Marine fisheries are a large culprit in the decimation of marine ecosystems and natural habitats, often resulting in overexploited areas or stocks (the 10 most caught species of fish have been labeled overexploited). Fish are caught with little thought to how the rapid depletion of population will impact their environments. These fish then get thrown out by the consumer, or rejected by stores for not meeting certain criteria, or rot in the truck because of lack of modern refrigeration (in developing nations).

Combat Food Waste

How can people combat the problem of wasting edible food? Here are five of the most common ways.

1. Use restraint.

Make the effort to plan meals, keep detailed shopping lists and avoid buying food items on impulse. Cultivating these thoughtful habits will go a long way toward keeping food out of your home that will end up being thrown out.

2. Don't be afraid to disregard the sell-by date.

These are not federally regulated in the United States and do not mean anything about the food’s safety for consumption (unless it’s baby food, in which case the date should be heeded). Rather, the sell-by date is a notation from the manufacturer that denotes the food’s peak quality. The use-by date is more important: eat food by that date or find out if it can be frozen.

3. Really use leftovers.

Some of us are good at doing this already. There are many ways to be creative and ingenious with the things you served the night before. You can turn one meal into a completely different one if you know a few things about recipes and common ingredients.

4. Don’t forget scraps.

There are lots of ways to creatively use the scraps of vegetables and other products (think celery leaves, the tops of beets and other veggies). You can use them for flavoring, soup stock and even whole meals. You can read this article and this one to find ideas for how to incorporate the oft-forgotten parts of food.

5. Do your research.

Do you have a leftover amount of an ingredient for a recipe? Instead of throwing out what’s left, research ways to incorporate it into other meals (like herehere or here). Find more ways to avoid wasting food online.

A Real Problem

Food waste is a real problem, but it doesn’t have to be. While the loss of food due to poor harvesting or other methods in developing countries is its own issue, the millions of tons of wasted food in our nation are often the fault of consumers. Creative, careful and thoughtful shopping, cooking and consumption will go a long way toward responsibly using the food we have and can even make a path to fullness for the millions of people worldwide who are hungry.

Have any tips to avoid food waste? Share them in the comments.

This article was originally published by Business Connect.

John Hawthorne is a writer, digital gypsy and former sports and travel blogger. 

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