Food waste is a global pandemic in its own right, yet few truly understand its consequences. Per definition, action precedes consequence, but often when we consider our individual acts of food waste, we fail to recognise everything that has had to occur before that food item reached you, and eventually, your garbage. While the direct act of wasting food has its serious environmental impacts, this article aims to shed light upon the environmental impacts along the supply chain of production, processing and distribution, and how, when throwing away a single unwanted food item, a mouldy apple, for example, you are essentially squandering precious environmental services such as water and land as well as wasting energy.
Have you ever thrown away a bruised apple? A mouldy loaf of bread? Milk that has passed its date? It’s okay, you can admit it – the truth is, the majority of us are guilty of these seemingly innocent crimes. It’s just an apple, you may think, what harm can it do? When considering the environmental impacts, the answer is, however, – a lot.
You may have just thrown away an apple, but that 100 g, now lying in the trash, will join the many other ‘innocently’ discarded food items, until eventually, the culmination of our collective neglect, results in 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste annually (FAO, 2020). To put it into perspective, nearly one-quarter of the calories that the world produces are thrown away (Searchinger et al., 2018). While low-income and high-income countries vary in where food waste takes place – poor storage and production standards in low-income settings, and consumer waste in high-income settings – across the board, food is wasted at an astonishing rate, ensuing catastrophic impacts on the environment (Depta, 2018).
The environmental issues related to food waste fall under two primary categories: the impacts related to production, processing and distribution, and those that come as a direct result of food being wasted. When food is wasted, particularly at the consumer-level, little thought is put into the toll that production of said food item took on the environment. Remember that 100g apple that you threw away? From planting to harvesting to processing, distribution, and eventually landing in your trash, that apple required 125 litres of water and produced nearly half its weight in greenhouse gases. Now, remember, an apple is a lot denser than gas, so the amount of space these gases will take up, far exceeds the apple that fits in your hand. The problem is, apples are not actually that bad in terms of their environmental impact. Take beef, for example. Producing one 250g portion of beef requires nearly 4,000 litres of water and produces 20kg of greenhouse gases, but the problem doesn’t stop there. To produce the same single portion of beef also requires about 80m² of land, which quickly nears 400m² for a steak dinner for a family of four. These are just some of the issues that arise from the production of food, with water use, eutrophication and biodiversity loss, playing far more substantial roles, as shown in the figure below (Ritchie, 2020).
The other side of the equation is what happens after food has been wasted. Food, being an organic product, will eventually decompose if left uneaten. During this process, methane is produced – a greenhouse gas that is twenty-five times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Cumulatively, the greenhouse gas emissions of food loss and waste equate to 6% of the global total. This presents the harrowing fact that if food waste were a country, it would be the third biggest emitter in the world, following closely behind China and the United States.
If we were to stop wasting food, we could reduce the total emissions from food production by 11%. The environmental impacts of food waste have reached critical levels and we need to take action. While it may be hard for you, an individual, to instigate institutional changes to the food production system, acknowledging the consequences of your actions is a great place to start. So, next time you go to throw away that less-than-perfect 100g of fruit, take a moment to think about where it came from and where it will go; then all that is left for you to do is make the right decision.
Written By: Emily Meijaard
Depta, L. (2018). Global Food Waste and its Environmental Impact | Green Living. [online] RESET.to. Available at: https://en.reset.org/knowledge/global-food-waste-and-its-environmental-impact-09122018 [Accessed 7 Feb. 2021].
FAO (2020a). Food Loss and Food Waste. [online] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at: http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/flw-data) [Accessed 7 Feb. 2021].
H. (2020). Environmental Impacts of Food Production | [online] OurWorldInData.org. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impacts-of-food [Accessed 7 Feb 2021]
Searchinger (2018). World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future | WRI. [online] research.wri.org. Available at: https://research.wri.org/wrr-food [Accessed 7 Feb. 2021].