Monika Zilionyte, Environmental Impact Assessment and Management student, reports on the global causes and impact of food waste, and on how to make a difference.
10 min read.
“Respect for food is a respect for life, for who we are and what we do”
The Policy & Academia
Food Waste: Hunger and Money
The UK Parliament House of Commons Research Briefing on food waste states there’s no ‘legal or universally agreed definition of food waste’. But to put it simply, it is ‘food intended for human consumption that is lost or wasted’ (Champions 12.3, 2017). With one third of all food produced globally being wasted (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2014, p.6), the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address food waste as goal 12: ‘ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns of food’ (UN, 2018, p.97).
Almost ‘1 billion people undernourished and 795 million going hungry every day’ (UN, 2018, p.98). There is no doubt that food waste production is a huge cause for concern. With disproportionate global food production, consumption and waste distribution, less developed countries suffer the most. It is estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of food goes to waste every year (Grosso and Falasconi, 2018, p.97) predominantly in the northern hemisphere. In the UK alone, approximately 10 million tonnes of food are wasted per annum (House of Commons, 2017, p.3). The responsible parties for food waste production and management in the UK include the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CWIM). Working alongside government departments are a number of research communities such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) charity. WRAP have estimated the monetary value of UK food waste to be £20 billion per year (2020).
So, from these figures we can determine a number of hypotheses:
Are we producing too much food and as a result throwing away a third of all food produced?
To put it plainly, the notion of producing ‘too much’ food whilst 795 million go hungry cannot be justified (UN, 2018, p.97). But this is definitely an issue of food and wealth distribution not demand for food.
Are we not capable of storing food correctly so it goes off?
With the advances in technology as basic as the refrigerator to scientific experiments of radio wave, plasma and light sterilisation (Wired, 2020) there is virtually no excuse for storage solutions. As a species, we have found multitudes of techniques and methods for food storage throughout our existence and have always executed this seamlessly, after all, food is vital for survival (Valley Food Storage, 2020).
Have we developed particular buying and eating habits that result in food being wasted?
There is no doubt that buying and eating habits have a part to play in our consumption and waste habits. As a society, we have developed disposable behaviours and preference for ‘quick fixes’, exhibiting our purchasing power by the tonne in food waste (Janssens, Lambrechts, Osch and Semeijn, 2019). Surely, the argument is to change our habits? What some may see as scraps and leftovers is others’ nutrition for the day. Perspective and value play a huge part in changing our habits towards food, diet and waste.
By creating ‘sell-by’ and ‘best before’ dates, are we now neglecting our primal senses to judge safe food?
What was once a great tool has now clouded our better judgements. Our noses can do an incredible job to tell us whether something is safe to eat. Food by the tonne is ending up in the bin because a printed sticker label has deemed it unfit for consumption.
- Have we not found the balance of supply and demand?
- Would we rather throw away food than give it to someone who’s hungry?
- Does the appearance of food influence our decision to eat it?
- Is it less convenient to store left-overs than to throw it away?
There are so many more questions that could leave you reading for days if I attempted to find reasonable, academic answers for them all. But the base line returns to this: the majority of food waste comes down to personal choices and responsibilities.
Food Waste and Climate Change
Food production is one of the leading contributors to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions contributing to climate change. It is almost equivalent to global road transport emissions (FAO, no date). Imagine it this way, ‘if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world’.
In order to understand the true value of food, you need to recognise the resources and energy put into its production, understanding the amount of land, water, time and resources put into growing your food – crop or livelihood. This also includes the energy use of farmers and maintenance, transport, packaging, cooking as well as waste processing. In every step of the food chain and production cycle, GHGs are emitted into the atmosphere, affecting the state of the climate – the water cycle, the soil quality, the weather systems, everything that shapes a successful yield. Then this food is disposed of in landfill to biodegrade, producing and emitting methane into the atmosphere, fuelling this chain reaction that alters the atmospheric composition.
The environmental impact of different foods can be identified by the amounts of energy and resources required in the production stages. Animal products require more land, water, resources and energy for production. Therefore, our choice of diet and food waste can heavily affect the environmental impact we have.
Over half of all habitable land is used for agriculture (ourworld, 2020) with 50,000 acres of forests being cleared by farmers and loggers per day (sentientmedia.org, 2019) and a third of all this food ends up in landfill or in some lucky cases, anaerobically digested for energy.
Going back to basics, it seems so unreasonable to create such a massive environmental impact for food that just ends up in the bin, doesn’t it? To forever change the composition of our atmosphere, rainforests, oceans and lands just to see the inside of our bins and then to be buried underground? It would be less frustrating if we at least consumed all the food for which we are risking our own existence on this planet.
The UN currently estimates that we will need 70% more food by 2050 as the human population continues to grow (Population Matters, 2020). How long until our natural resources are depleted… or in this case, wasted?
There is something we can all do to ensure that less food ends up in the bin at the end of your week. Here are some suggestions to consider how your personal actions can make the world a better place:
- Get educated! Watch videos (see the selection below), read books, follow blogs and podcasts, and have conversations. Understand why wasting food is bad and how you can make a change.
- Change your diet. Explore where your food is from, how much water it takes to grow it, and how much CO2 is emitted from its transport. Try taking meat out of your diet once a week, then more. Make educated choices to make a difference.
- Buy locally – cut out the middle man and purchase from a local market, packaging-free!
- Buy only what you will need or eat! Avoid stockpiling or overbuying. Analyse your eating habits and make a shopping list that suits and doesn’t create waste.
- Store food appropriately: the best way to preserve and ensure your food stays out of the bin is by storing it appropriately.
- Use a food bin if you have one – this avoids food being sent to landfill and instead anaerobically digested so that it can create energy and reduce methane emissions.
- Keep your leftovers – either from a restaurant or after cooking! Meal prep it and eat it another day.
- If you have to throw food away, why not compost it in your garden? It’s great fertiliser for your plants!
- Sharing is caring – why not give away some of your food to neighbours and friends, or even use food sharing/selling apps such as ‘Olio’ and ‘TooGoodToGo’.
Lastly and most importantly, let your voice be heard: sign petitions to fight for a more sustainable society whereby everyone can have food on the table.
Check out some of these videos:
- Amazing World of Science With Mr Green (no date) Topic 5.2 Terrestrial Food Production Systems and Food Choices. Available at: https://www.mrgscience.com/ess-topic-52-terrestrial-food-production-systems-and-food-choices.html# (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Brones, A. (2018) Food waste in the world is a really big problem. Available at: https://www.organicauthority.com/buzz-news/the-amount-of-food-waste-in-the-world-is-a-really-big-problem-infographic (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Commission for Environmental Cooperation (2020) Food waste, the environment and climate change. Available at: http://www.cec.org/flwy/food-waste-climate-change/ (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Cucurachi, S., Scherer, L., Guinee, J., and Tukker, A. (2019) ‘Life Cycle Assessment of Food Systems’, One Earth, 1(3), pp.292-297.
- European Parliamentary Research Service Blog (2014) Environmental Impact of Food Waste. Available at: https://epthinktank.eu/2014/02/07/tackling-food-waste-the-eus-contribution-to-a-global-issue/food-waste4/ (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) (2020) 15 Quick Tips for reducing food waste and becoming a food hero. Available at: http://www.fao.org/fao-stories/article/en/c/1309609/ (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Food Wastage Footprint & Climate Change. Available at: http://www.fao.org/3/a-bb144e.pdf (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Hanson, C. (2017) Guidance on interpreting sustainable development goal target 12.3. Available at: https://champs123blog.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/champions-12-3-guidance-on-interpreting-sdg-target-12-3.pdf(Accessed: 11th October 2020).
- Helmer, J. (2015) Understanding Food Waste. Available at: https://www.fix.com/blog/food-waste/ (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- House of Commons (2016) Food Waste: Key Facts, Policy and trends in the UK. Available at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7552/ (Accessed: 11 October 2020).
- Hudepohl, D. (2020) Why going vegan is one of the best things you can do for the environment. Available at: https://www.forksoverknives.com/wellness/vegan-diet-helps-environmental-sustainability/ (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Huval, R. (2018) No refrigeration necessary: new tech for everlasting shelf-life. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/food-preservation/ (Accessed: 7th November 2020).
- Janssens, K. Lambrechts, W., Osch, A., V. and Semeijn, J. (2019) ‘How consumer behaviour in daily food provisioning affects food waste at household level in the Netherlands’, Foods, 8(10), p.428.
- Meek, T. (2019) Effects of Deforestation: How does Agriculture Cause Deforestation? Available at: https://sentientmedia.org/how-does-agriculture-cause-deforestation/ (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Murdock, A. (2017) What you need to know about food waste and Climate Change. Available at: https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/longform/what-you-need-know-about-food-waste-and-climate-change(Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Palme, K. (2019) Fighting Climate Change by tackling food waste. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/fighting-climate-change-by-tackling-food-waste/a-48384916 (Accessed: 14th november 2020).
- Population Matters (2020) Resources & Consumption. Available at: https://populationmatters.org/the-facts/resources-consumption (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Ritchie, H. and Roser, M. (2020) Environmental Impacts of Food Production. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
- Valley Food Storage (2020) The History of Food Storage. Available at: https://valleyfoodstorage.com/blogs/inside-vfs/the-history-of-food-storage (Accessed: 7th November 2020).
- World Food Programme (WFP) (2020) Hunger Map 2020. Available at: https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000118395/download/?_ga=2.222978457.308125709.1602437559-923341003.1602437559 (Accessed: 14th November 2020).
This blog post was originally posted on Monika Zilionyte’s AgeofEco blog, where you can find more of her eco insights and research!