We face many challenges worldwide, such as environmental accidents, global warming, and industrial pollution. Still, there is something else happening that many of us are unaware of—Food Waste.
Food. We all need it, and many of us are lucky enough to access the wide range of products found in supermarkets. However, our relationship with food waste is often out of sight and mind. This relationship causes problems on a global scale, and the issue needs addressing sooner rather than later.
To understand the scale of the problem, our uneaten food contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, with the number of emissions that food produces being the third-highest behind China and America.
The issue of global food waste is not just about consumers creating waste. The problem with food waste begins at the start of the food production process, which includes growing crops and livestock, and even during the manufacturing process. From producing our food through retail and consumer levels, we waste a significant amount each year.
Scratch the surface, and you realize we waste other resources, such as water; then there is the transportation of produce and food processing. We also don't see the effects of food insecurity and starvation in certain countries worldwide. Or, for that matter, all the resources that go into our food supply. We simply see our food in the bin and think nothing more of it.
The cold, hard food waste facts are staggering. Globally, we waste one-third of the food produced, equating to 1.3 billion tonnes, while we use a quarter of our water supply to produce our food. Estimates suggest Americans waste 40 million tons or 80 billion pounds of food annually.
Many of us are changing regarding other challenges we face as a global community, such as plastic or energy consumption. Still, our food waste problem has not gained as much attention as these other issues.
There is not one single, clear-cut answer to this question. However, there are many reasons why food ends up wasted. Food loss occurs across every stage of the process, ranging from the moment it is grown to the moment it reaches the consumer.
Food can become lost through spillages, it can become spoiled during transit, and it can become damaged by insect infestation. In reality, many reasons exist for why we waste food and many ways we can waste it.
It has already been identified that the problem of food waste is more than the food thrown away, as it includes the entire supply chain. The food we see in the supermarkets goes through a lengthy production process to get to the supermarket shelves. As part of this process, there is the use of a number of resources, all of which can have their own impact on the environment.
Related read: Worst foods for the environment.
Water usage is a global problem, and food loss and waste contribute to it. The entire process of growing, harvesting, and manufacturing food utilizes a lot of fresh water. Water is precious to us, and there is no denying that we are using a lot of it in some parts of the world; water is a resource that has to be rationed and not used needlessly.
Considering that 70% of the palatable water on earth is used for drinking water for livestock or crop irrigation, it brings the whole problem of food waste into perspective. Again, the figures are alarming, with 125 liters of water being used to grow one apple or 15,400 liters needed to produce 1kg of beef. This incredible amount of water is used annually, much of which is wasted, adding to the misery of global food waste.
The land on earth is precious, valuable, and limited, yet 28% of the world's agricultural areas are utilized to produce food that goes to waste. This causes problems with the quality of the land but also the need to clear land to make way for space to grow crops.
The sheer size of global food production is phenomenal, especially when you consider that a land mass greater than the size of China is used to grow food each year that does not get eaten.
This is land that has been developed to the point where rainforests have been destroyed, and species have been driven out of their habitat, of which many have been driven to extinction. At the same time, indigenous populations have been moved from their homes. All of this is done to produce food that simply gets wasted.
The food we eat goes through a significant manufacturing process. This would include crops being turned into specific foods or meat processing. This entire manufacturing process requires a lot of energy and utilizes a number of resources, and a large portion of the food that leaves this process goes to waste.
This is where food waste becomes a global issue on another level because of the wasted resources and harmful gases emitted as part of the process.
We are all aware of how much of a problem plastic is for the environment. Of course, a great deal of the food we eat comes in plastic packaging. So, the production of all of this plastic is an issue in itself. Still, the needless waste it produces that gets thrown into the oceans or dropped into landfills becomes an additional problem that is underpinned by food waste. If we produced less food, it would lead to less waste and a reduction in plastic packaging.
If we put a figure on the carbon footprint of food waste, this would stand at an appalling 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 each year. This figure is derived from the transportation, the growing of food, the production and manufacturing process, and the greenhouse gases resulting from rotting food waste. Clearly, global food waste is a problem that needs to be attacked from a number of different angles.
Food waste is also considered to be a global problem because of the number of people who are suffering from starvation in the world. Around 800 million do not have access to food in the same way as people in developed countries. This means that 1 in 9 people worldwide is starving or malnourished.
However, each person could be fed on under a quarter of the food that goes to waste in the UK, Europe, and the USA each year. What might also surprise many is that hunger is not just a problem for people in underdeveloped countries - it is a problem for these developed countries. Many people live in 'food poverty,' and all that wasted food could ensure that almost every person on the planet has access to the proper nutrition.
By 2050, it is estimated that the world's population will increase from 7.6 billion to 9.8 billion. Food produced globally will struggle to keep up with this growing population, while food waste will grow proportionately, especially if nothing is done to solve the problem. Given how much food we waste, we should carefully consider how to reduce this rather than focus efforts solely on the means to produce more food to meet growing demand.
A significant amount of food waste or food loss is seen during the life span of food from the moment it is grown to the moment it reaches consumers. The aim here is to reduce food loss by improving training for farmers and making infrastructure improvements. There are new refrigeration technologies available, as well as renewable energy sources, that can reduce food waste.
Solar-powered refrigeration systems can help reduce food waste by dealing with food supply disruptions across the food supply chain, while new coatings that can be placed on produce help to control the amount of water and carbon dioxide that fruit releases. This also controls the amount of oxygen that enters the fruit, helping it to stay fresher for longer.
As new technologies emerge, they can give suppliers more time to deliver goods while also giving consumers more time to use them, increasing the time it takes for food to spoil. Of course, as consumers, the easier thing we can do is to avoid buying too much food in the first place.
This is an area that supermarkets need to improve in because donating unsold goods can significantly reduce the amount of waste. Several supermarkets in the UK are already working with platforms that notify local charities, food pantries, food banks, and soup kitchens when surplus food is available.
In France, great strides have been made in dealing with surplus edible food, as it is illegal for supermarkets to discard unused foods, and they are required to make regular donations. In fact, there are now supermarkets that sell excess food discarded by other markets, where consumers can purchase food past its sell-by date but still considered safe to eat at a fraction of the cost.
These are all promising signs, but a transparent approach is needed within the supply chain to reduce unused food and the depletion of natural resources used to produce the food we don't eat. This could be as simple as improving communication with farmers so they do not overproduce foods.
Some initiatives use food waste, such as turning coffee cherries into flour or creating ale from leftover bread. Other initiatives seek to turn food waste into animal feed, while we can also use food waste to produce valuable resources such as household energy.
This is a great way to use perishable items, and fresh food unsuitable for consumption can be used in other ways, reducing the need for duplication in the production or supply chain. However, often inflexible approaches to chain store management need re-thinking to avoid food waste from our supermarket shelves.
At home, we can turn our food scraps into compost and devise creative ways to eat leftovers rather than immediately consigning them to the waste bin. You can also check out our ideas for going zero waste in the kitchen for low waste cooking, storing, and other tips.
Essentially, dealing with the problem of food waste comes down to education. This can begin at the starting point of the production process, and it filters through the entire chain until it reaches the consumer. The food industry can improve labeling and dates to increase consumer awareness, as some foods are still okay to eat beyond the dates on the packaging.
Improving education and awareness of food waste will undoubtedly draw attention to the food waste problem. It will make everyone aware of just how much of a problem it really is.
Once the problem has been acknowledged both on a global scale and on a supply chain level, we can implement the correct changes to reduce food waste, a growing, and worrying problem.