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Food waste, an economic and environmental hazard

The food waste issue can only be resolved if society moves to address the problem as a whole.

grocery story, refrigerated aisle
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Who doesn’t like good food?

The sight of the sizzling golden-brown breading on fried chicken. The scent of buttery garlic filling the room as the delivery person hands you your long-awaited meal. The taste of sweet richness and tang permeates your mouth as you munch on a spoonful of strawberry cheesecake.

Food is truly an amazing thing, yet it is often taken for granted. Food waste is a serious issue that continues to plague society despite the various ramifications. With some effort, we can reduce the harm of food waste.

Every day, roughly 330 million pounds of food is thrown away across the United States. That is approximately 120 billion pounds of food wasted in a year, equating to $408 billion worth of food. That’s a lot of money going down the drain, but that’s not the worst of it. The entire world contributes to the food waste problem. Globally, around 14% of food produced is lost between harvest and retail, while an estimated 17% of total global food production is wasted.

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Now, those percentages may seem small but on the larger scale of things, the numbers estimate 3.5 trillion pounds of food. The problem is that there are multiple detriments to food waste, and these problems are exacerbated by the mountains of food being wasted. Not only is food waste affecting the lives of other people, but food waste also undermines the sustainability of our food systems and contributes to climate change.

Concerning developing countries, where food shortages suffocate the populace, the amount of wasted food would drastically help feed those hundred million people suffering from malnourishment. This is not an issue limited solely to developing countries; even developed countries, like the United States, have millions of people suffering from hunger and the wasted food could be used to help feed these communities.

But that’s not all; other resources are also being wasted. The food system is an intricate web of interconnected processes – all requiring various resources to function. Some of these systems include the production, processing, and distribution of foods. Land, water, fuel, labor and capital are examples of resources being utilized at every stage, and when food is wasted, all other resources that go into the processes are also wasted. As a result, sustainability is reduced as the costs of doing food business increase. Ultimately, the consequences of food waste flow to the general population through increased prices of food.

Lastly, food waste contributes to the ever-growing problem of climate change. In the general food disposal process, foods will typically end up in landfills. Over time, the food breaks down and releases the greenhouse gas, methane, a hefty contributor to climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food waste releases an estimated amount of 3.6 billion tonnes (metric tons) of carbon dioxide. The emissions are so dire the FAO stated, “(i)f ‘Food Waste’ were a country it would be the world’s 3rd largest emitter of CO2 after China and the US.” All in all, the facts come to show that food waste has detrimental impacts on the environment, among other things, and steps need to be taken to mitigate the problem before it escalates further.

Pao Vang
Pao Vang
The problem is big, but it’s not unstoppable. There are practical solutions available to everyone, with some solutions being accessible from one’s own home. The first solution is like preventative care – be cognizant of food purchases and avoid buying surplus. This solution will help reduce the amount of food waste in the long run. In addition, one of the best solutions is donating excess food to hunger-relief organizations and food banks. Donating the food will help feed people in need and reduce waste from piling up. Similarly, food can be used to feed animals as well. The final solution I want to touch on is composting. The Environmental Protection Agency provides a detailed article on what composting is and how to effectively compost. In short, composting is a natural process that essentially recycles food into a nutrient-rich soil amendment (materials used to improve the physical nature of the soil). Composting is a fairly low-effort process that massively helps the food waste problem by converting potential waste into a beneficial substance that significantly reduces methane emissions and can be used for enhancing the quality of the soil.

The food waste issue can only be resolved if society moves to address the problem as a whole. Though these solutions may seem minuscule, ripples so to speak, waves may follow after the many ripples. In other words, these small-scale solutions are essential ripples in causing large-scale change. So, the next time you plan to throw away edible food, consider alternate measures.

Pao Vang, is a J.D. candidate at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and an advocate for human rights.