Have you ever thought of what happens to our discarded food and how it affects our eco footprint? Food waste is food that is of good quality and safe for consumption but is not consumed and instead discarded before or even after it is spoiled. Our bad habits add up! Everything from your half eaten meals at restaurants to the over-stocking of lettuce at the grocery store - there are sadly countless ways that we contribute to food waste, some that we may not even think twice about.
The food we eat at home has a tendency to be easily discarded or forgotten about. We're probably all guilty of having leftovers stuffed so far back in our fridge we cease to remember they exist & by the time we do, they're as good as garbage. Every year Americans waste 40% of their food with an estimated 125 to 160 billion pounds of food going to waste. Yikes! In a world that produces more than enough to share it’s a hard to learn from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) that nearly 1.5 billion people cannot afford food that meets the required levels of essential nutrients. At Arbor, we advocate for environmental care and human rights as it aligns with the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger and #Envision2030. This, according to the United Nations World Food Programme, aims to end hunger and ensure food access to all people, in particular the poor and vulnerable.
“Roughly one-third of the food produced that is intended for human consumption every year- around 1.3 billion tons and valued at USD 1 trillion- is wasted or lost. This is enough to feed 3 billion people.” -Earth.Org
Did you know that if food wastage was a country it would be the third-largest in the world?
In 2012 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a total of 936 billion USD was lost to food product waste with the social costs of carbon or the damage control required to recuperate the loss from global food wastage was a staggering USD 411 billion. -Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)
On average it’s estimated that 7% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions comes from preventable food waste. This is mostly thanks to methane - a deadly greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide - that accumulates in landfills where our discarded foot ends up rotting. These chlorofluorocarbons absorb infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface and heat the atmosphere causing global warming.
What is included in a food waste calculation? We can break this into (i) The pre-harvest phase: all agricultural inputs, machinery, livestock, soils and (ii) The post-harvest phase: processing, transportation, preparation of food and waste disposal. Different products hold different intensities too, so a cereal such as rice grown in Asia is much more carbon-intensive than wheat grown in Europe as grains decompose more readily. But what part of the food supply chain causes the most backlash? By far it’s our daily consumption clocking in at over 35% of total emissions! So the age-old adage is true – you are what you eat! And if you are, you must be mindful of what’s on your plate, everything from portion size to how much red meat you are consuming.
Overproduction and Market Price
From farm to fork what’s involved in the food industry? The supply chain for food has 5 key stages: Agricultural Production, Post-harvest handling and Storage, Processing, Distribution and Consumption. Food loss happens on farms, during storage and transportation. According to the USDA, nearly 30 percent of food is lost at the farm stage. That is, before even reaching our grocery stores, produce is tossed due to damaged crops, poor weather, labour costs, lack of refrigeration, aesthetic standards or price volatility.
Second, overproduction is a big problem as farmers often plant more than consumers demand as they are betting against unfortunate weather conditions and pests. Up to a third of the food may not be harvested because of damage by weather, pests and disease so farmers are backed into a corner and have no choice but to throw away edible food. Basically how the market works for supply and demand is if the price of the product on the market is lower than the cost of transportation and labour, then most likely it will be chucked. Also called “dumping” is a practice when farmers produce way too much of a product that people are willing to buy that they have no choice but to trash the remainder when demand falls suddenly and unexpectedly.
Product Appearance & Marketing
Yes, food discrimination is a real thing! Sounds almost crazy right? But we live in a society that values perfection and an eye-candy appeal so we are picky about our produce. Check this – the USDA has some pretty strict rules for the fruits and vegetables that end up making it on our shelves. For example, check out the requirements for an apple to be considered to be allowed to sell in a grocery store.
“...which are mature but not overripe, clean, fairly well-formed, free from decay, internal browning, internal breakdown, soft scald, scab, freezing injury, visible water core, and broken skins." -Agriculture Marketing Service, USDA
This is the approach of buying produce on what looks aesthetically appealing based on size, shape and any blemishes using a rating or grading scale. Imperfections on the fruit and veggies are classified as “ugly produce” (And yes! It has the same nutritional value!) and won’t even be displayed on shelves. This cosmetic filtering of course is a significant source of food waste on farms both before and after harvest. Recently one solution to this is tossing of produce that doesn't met visual standards is it's donation to emergency relief organizations, at least that's something we can get behind.
There's a lot of confusion out there on date labels - and a lot of misinformation on them, contributes to a lot of food waste. So many of us discard food because we don’t know the difference between the “sell by,” “packaged on,” “best before” and “best if used by” so it can get convoluted. Arbor fun fact – these dates are not federally regulated and only serve the manufacturer suggestions for peak quality. Best before dates are an indication of quality rather than safety so you are good to consume the product even though the date displayed may pass as long as you follow the requirements for proper storage and handling of the food product.
An expiration date indicates that a product is no longer safe to eat as its specific nutritional components have gone bad and must be thrown out. DO NOT eat, cook, or freeze after the date displayed has passed even if it looks good texture-wise or smells fine.
Packaging dates have a durable life period of 90 days or less, are used in conjunction with best before dates and tell you how long the unopened product will retain its freshness. “There must be a reason why some people can afford to live well. They must have worked for it. I only feel angry when I see waste. When I see people throwing away things we could use.” -Mother Teresa
What are some solutions to the overarching problem of food waste? Unfortunately, there is no magic formula. Fortunately, there is so much incredible potential in what can be done. On a policy and governmental level educating consumers through a public education program, standardizing food labels for food borne illnesses and expanding the municipal compost system is required. On a business level, eliminating those pesky 2-for-1 promotions, donating excess food to those in need and using props and boxes to create an illusion of fuller appeal of products on shelves is a good start. On a personal level buying only what you need or know you'll actually eat, buying those funky fruits and veggies, meal planning and eating seasonally is bound to make a big difference to your eco-footprint for food waste. What are your suggestions on how we should reduce our food waste? Leave us a comment below!