I have had food on my mind, as I usually do, but this time in a very different way. Last week I was volunteering with a wonderful food rescue organization in Denver, Colorado called Metro Caring. As we packed hundreds of pounds of lettuce heads, yams, mushrooms, and other vegetables, I started panicking. We had been getting shipments of food from local grocery stores that “got rid of” these food items because they were soon to expire (not really) or too “ugly” to sell. Yes, grocery stores will throw out fruits and vegetables that are perfectly edible because they are ugly looking or weirdly shaped. As I was saving every item of food and setting aside partly mushy yams, that again were perfectly edible for the most part, I was just in awe of how much food was coming into the rescue center. Honestly, thank goodness for these food rescue organizations because without them, more people would starve and more food would be going to landfill. Luckily, all of the food that could not be salvaged was composted. However, my Friday afternoon presents a real problem that’s truly abhorrent – our food waste problem.
In the United States, approximately 40% of all food produced and distributed goes to waste. Yikes. That 40% could surely feed a lot of hungry people. I’ll break it down further. That 40% of food waste is approximately 80 BILLION pounds of food wasted every year. And of that 80 billion pounds, approximately 2.6 million tons gets composted or 4.1% of wasted food (Sustainable Management, 2021). Additionally, food is the single largest component taking up space in US landfills, which is 22% of municipal solid waste (Food Waste, 2021). ALL of that food sitting in landfills releasing methane into the atmosphere could have been composted. Better yet, almost all of that food waste could have been avoidable in the first place if companies did not just throw away what doesn’t look pretty (I also blame the gluttonous fools who hoard tons of food then refuse to eat it all).
I will break down the numbers even further:
- Food waste per person is approximately 219 pounds annually.
- Food waste amounts to $1,600 per family annually.
- 80 billion pounds of food waste equals $161 billion per year.
Yes, we are wasting a lot of food and throwing away A LOT of money. What’s even more degrading is the fact that approximately 37 million Americans, including 11 million children, suffer from food insecurity (Food Waste, 2021). Even if we created more food rescue organizations, it would be extremely difficult to save a lot of the food that gets wasted.
Did you also know that more than 80% of Americans discard perfectly good, consumable food simply because they misunderstand expiration labels? Labels like “sell by,” “use by,” “expires on,” “best before,” or “best by” are confusing to people – and in an effort to not risk the potential of a foodborne illness, they’ll just toss it in the garbage (Food Waste, 2021). Also, these food labels are usually sell by dates, not expiration dates. For more information on food expiration dates, check out Eat or Toss.
Food waste is an extremely big part of our food system’s problems and a large contribution to carbon emissions, but this isn’t the only major issue facing our food industry.
Industrialized farming and meat consumption are two of the greatest contributing factors to carbon emissions and climate change. Additionally, most of our food comes from factory farms, and those foods will travel thousands of miles to get to a grocery store (more carbon emissions). Once they get to the grocery store, oftentimes, fresh produce gets treated with pesticides that are bad for the environment and bad for our health.
Industrialized agriculture uses a method of planting called monoculture, designed to boost efficiency, in which fields are planted with single types of crops. Monoculture makes it possible to use large-scale machinery for cultivation and harvesting. It is a method that leads to soil depletion and a resulting dependence on fertilizer, and it makes plants more vulnerable to disease pathogens. About 25 percent of the world’s cropland is currently planted in monocultures (Robertson, 2017). The foods we are growing and wasting 40% of are contributing evermore to climate change. The results are catastrophic as populations continue to uncontrollably grow.
I pointed out some daunting statistics about food waste and agriculture. Now I’m going to point out some even more daunting statistics about meat consumption. Meat consumption accounts for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases. In the US, four companies produce 81 percent of cows, 73 percent of sheep, 57 percent of pigs, and 50 percent of chickens. Some 84 percent of pigs killed each year come from factory farms (2017). Big food is primarily in charge of meat, which further hurts our environment and our farmers and ranchers. Replacing 50% of animal products with plant-based foods in the United States would prevent more than 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution by 2030. If American diets remain unchanged, emissions associated with producing the food we eat will climb by 9% by 2030 (Feldstein, 2020). These are a lot of stats on the meat industry, but important to note how much meat consumption is killing our planet. Also, the meat industry has never been ethical. If every person significantly reduced meat or switched to a vegetarian/vegan diet, emissions would drastically decrease. If you are going to consume meat, consider eating less, shop from local farmers and ranchers, or hunt the food yourself. Hunting and buying meat from local farms and ranches are the most ethical ways of consuming meat.
There is a lot to think about when considering your food options and how you are going to consume your food. Cutting down on meat consumption, composting, and not buying food in bulk are incredibly beneficial if every person does this. Remember too, considering how much food the US produces, this country could probably feed the entire world. Some food for thought.
Feldstein, S. (2020). Cutting U.S. Meat Intake in Half Could Prevent 1.6 Billion Tons of Climate Pollution. Center for Biological Diversity. Retrieved from https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/study-cutting-us-meat-intake-half-could-prevent-16-billion-tons-climate-pollution-2020-04-30/.
Food Waste in America in 2021. (2021). RTS. Retrieved from https://www.rts.com/resources/guides/food-waste-america/.
Robertson, M. (2017). Sustainability Principles and Practices. Routledge.
Sustainable Management of Food. (2021). United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sustainable-management-food/reducing-impact-wasted-food-feeding-soil-and-composting#:~:text=EPA%20estimates%20that%20in%202018,25%20million%20tons%20through%20composting.