Food Waste: A Serious Environmental Offender
Food Waste: A Serious Environmental Offender
Food waste reduction is identified as the third most impactful solution to climate change. Across the food system, this global threat squanders water, land, labor, fossil fuels, fertilizer, nutrients, seed, and financial capital. Over 20% of Michigan’s gross product is associated with the agri-food system, making food waste a Michigan issue. However, regionally, nationally, and internationally, food waste is often overlooked in the discussion of sustainability and climate change.
Impact on Resources
Wasted food devours valuable resources. In the US, approximately 10% of the national energy budget, 21% of water used in agriculture, 19% of cropland, and 18% of farming fertilizer is used to produce wasted food. Food waste also exhausts enormous financial resources. The US is wasting approximately $165 billion due to wasted food annually. In fact, the average family of four spends $1300 to $2200 per year on wasted food. With so many resources at stake in a state with a large agri-food system, recapturing food waste means recapturing Michigan resources.
In addition to consuming resources, food waste directly contributes to the accumulation of GHG. Across every aspect of the food system, perfectly edible, delicious, nutritious food is wasted. This food amounts to approximately 40% of the food produced in the US. As this enormous quantity of food decomposes, it releases the powerful GHG methane. Food waste is also the number one contributor to landfills.
In addition to the health of our global ecosystem, food waste has huge implications for human health. The elimination of food waste could prevent the release of 70 billion tons of GHG. As decomposing nutrients contaminate the atmosphere with GHG, approximately 2 billion people across the globe struggle with food insecurity.
Food insecurity is an inability for a household to provide enough food for each person to live a healthy, active life, and has many negative consequences. It is associated with malnutrition, including undernutrition, obesity, or both; even within the same individual. Food insecurity can make it difficult to follow a special diet. Those who face food insecurity report having to choose between food and medical care. For those with chronic conditions including diabetes, this choice can lead to complications including eye disease, nerve damage, kidney disease, or death. Children who face food insecurity are more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school, experience developmental impairments, and have more social/behavioral problems.
Unfortunately, food insecurity is a Michigan issue. On average, approximately 1 person in 7, and 1 child in 6 struggles with food insecurity in Michigan. However, in some areas of Michigan, those numbers are much worse. In those areas, the numbers climb to 1 person in 5 overall, and approach 1 in 4 for children. Michigan is also home to one of the most food insecure counties in the US.
Amazing organizations are accomplishing irreplaceable work to combat food insecurity in Michigan, the US, and internationally. Organizations such as food banks capture food that would otherwise be wasted in order to offer it to those struggling with food insecurity. However, we must change our global culture to waste less, make more of these food items available, and offer additional resources for organizations to capture and deliver this invaluable commodity to those who need it.
Forms of Food Waste
The problem of food waste takes many forms. During the growing cycle, wasted food may be misshapen, large, small, or simply overproduced. Perfectly edible food is also damaged in transit, or may be discarded by grocers far before the product is actually spoiled. Consumers may overbuy, misunderstand date labeling, unintentionally mistreat, or lose interest in and waste food. Finally, food nutrients are wasted in landfills, rather than nourishing the soil through compost.
While the problem of food waste is incredibly pervasive internationally, excellent resources do exist to support food waste reduction. In the State of Michigan, programs such as the Michigan Agricultural Surplus System offers resources for Michigan food banks to purchase B-grade produce from Michigan farmers. Legislation can also play a key role. In California, legislation passed in October 2019, Assembly Bill No. 827, requires food service establishments such as mall food courts to provide customers with bins and educational signage for organic waste such as food waste. New York City provides infrastructure and supporting legislation to capture organic material for residents, schools, businesses, and nonprofits. In 2016, France became the first country in the world to pass legislation that fines grocers of a certain size who discard unused food. Not only does this encourage the reduction of food waste, according to the 2018 annual report of the association of French food banks, food donations by food businesses are up substantially since the law was passed.
Food waste reduction is essential to Michigan’s sustainability strategy. Food waste has enormous potential to reduce GHG, particularly since Michigan is an agri-food state. These facts combine to create powerful potential for change through action. Michigan has great opportunity, and also huge responsibility to impact climate change through the reduction of food waste.
Food waste reduction is also strategic from a financial perspective. New and existing food-related businesses can realize profits by creating efficiencies in the food system to cut down on waste. Food waste reduction businesses are also a potential growth industry.
Opportunities also exist for additional legislation to support food waste reduction. Legislation could provide food waste incentives or penalties. Education for food donors regarding existing legislation that protects them from liability would also be beneficial. As well, it is important that community planning seriously considers supporting infrastructure to collect compostable materials to reduce GHG and enrich soil.
The UN FAO also suggests that educating consumers is one very important way to address food waste. Organizations that fight food waste offer resources for consumers that range from planning meals and eating leftovers to understanding date labels, using kitchen scraps, and composting. Consumers’ understanding and action on all these fronts are needed to reduce food waste.
A Season to Rescue Food Waste
In the coming season, celebrations and feasts offer sweet treats, savory favorites, and decadent confections. However, even the most delicious food items can become food waste. Follow these tips to reduce food waste in the coming season.
Follow food safety guidelines to make sure leftovers are safe and ready for future meals.
Encourage guests to bring containers to take food home, or provide sustainable take-home plates or containers.
Put a clean cooler in your vehicle to transport food.
Share leftovers with friends and family.
Avoid flavor burnout by treating leftovers as ingredients, rather than serving them in the same way.
Freeze food that can tolerate this storage technique.
Incorporate leftovers into a meal plan to make sure there is a strategy in place to use all food items.
Join the Team
Additional ways to fight food waste include:
Join the conversation. Many organizations fighting food waste have social media sites and/or newsletters. Subscribe, like, and follow to learn more about the issues, and how to help. Many of these organizations are also non-profit, and benefit from financial and volunteer support. Organizations fighting food waste include:
Detroit-based Make Food Not Waste is a great resource for state and regional food waste questions.
Donate to organizations that capture food from the waste stream. Organizations such as food banks and hot meal programs play an important role in fighting food waste. They also depend on financial and volunteer support in order to accomplish the work they do.
Grow food scraps and seeds that would otherwise be thrown away. This keeps GHG out of the atmosphere, saves money, and conveniently provides food to your home.
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