Food waste is responsible for 21 percent of freshwater use, contributing to the loss of riparian ecosystems and the decline of the yellow-billed cuckoo, a “rain crow” once known across the western United States for its song heard just before thunderstorms or summer showers.
Food Waste Is Trashing the Planet
Agriculture is responsible for enormous amounts of habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and pollution, making it one of the biggest threats to biodiversity worldwide. When food is wasted, so are the natural resources and wildlife sacrificed to our food system — and we waste a lot of food.
In the United States, 40 percent of edible food is wasted — about 1,200 calories per person every single day. Not only do we waste more than the global average, but the amount of food we waste has tripled over the past 50 years, increasing at a faster rate than our population. Every year $218 billion worth of food in the United States is simply thrown away, at a steep cost to wildlife, the environment and the 1 in 7 Americans who don’t get enough to eat.
If food waste were a country, it would be the third top emitter of greenhouse gas emissions after China and the United States, accounting for 3 billion tons of carbon emissions. In the United States, uneaten food is the single largest source of trash in landfills, which account for 18 percent of the country’s methane pollution, a greenhouse gas that’s 87 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
And the problem keeps growing. Over the past 50 years, greenhouse gas emissions from food waste have increased more than 300 percent, and are projected to increase another 400 percent by mid-century if current dietary and waste trends continue.
With nearly 30 percent of farmland worldwide producing food that’s never consumed, the nation of food waste would take up more land than any other country except Russia. In the United States alone, about 80 million acres of land are used to produce wasted food; if that were wildlife habitat instead of farmland, it would be 35 times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
A Bear of a Problem
Now known for wolves and Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park was once famous for its garbage dumps, where people would crowd around to watch black bears and grizzly bears scavenge through the trash. This continued until 1970, when the National Park Service realized the practice was bad for both bears and humans, and the last of Yellowstone’s garbage dumps was closed. Without the food source they’d come to rely on, the bears continued to search for sustenance from the park’s visitors, resulting in conflicts. Eventually the bears returned to their natural diet, but their populations had suffered.
In addition to the environmental cost of producing food that goes uneaten, food waste also has a direct impact on wildlife and ecosystems:
Deadly Dining: Food waste attracts bears and other wildlife, which often has lethal consequences. The more we throw out, the more wild animals come to rely on the buffet of edible food in our trash cans, drawing them closer to the places where people live. This leads to human-wildlife encounters that can result in damaged property or injury as the animals search for new food sources. In most cases the large animals involved in these encounters — or even those that just get too comfortable among humans — are considered a threat and killed.
Predator Potluck: There are 1.6 billion tons of food left in fields, sent to landfills or otherwise thrown away around the world, plus 7 million tons of fishery discards dumped in the sea. This newly introduced food source can throw off the balance of ecosystems by allowing some species populations to surge. For example, a recent study found that fish-eating birds like western gulls around Monterey Bay have been feasting on fishery discards and landfill garbage, and the resulting increase in their population is contributing to the decline of steelhead trout. A marine ecologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz estimates that as many as 30 percent of juvenile steelhead trout are falling to prey to the booming gull population.
Wasting Wildlife: 10 Endangered Species Threatened by Food Waste
About 80 million acres of habitat have been lost to farmland that produces food that’s never eaten. Habitat loss and persecution from the livestock industry have driven the iconic Plains bison to the brink of extinction.
Enormous amounts of pesticides are sprayed on crops that are never eaten, threatening species like the California tiger salamander that are trying to survive downstream from farms in habitat that’s already been diminished and degraded by urban and agricultural development.
While 40 percent of food in the United States goes to waste, monarch caterpillars are losing their sole food source, milkweed, to genetically engineered crops and the toxic herbicides they’re drenched with in order to grow wasted foods.
Uneaten meat and dairy account for one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions and more than three-quarters of the habitat loss associated with food waste, as well as the unnecessary killing of millions of native animals, including hundreds of gray wolves, targeted largely at the behest of livestock owners.
More than 50,000 threatened and endangered sea turtles are killed by shrimp trawling fisheries in the southeastern United States each year, part of the massive amount of marine life wasted by the seafood industry.
The wasteful practice of catching huge amounts of marine life to bring seafood to market nets countless victims you’ll never see on the menu, including the vaquita, the smallest and most endangered porpoise in the world.
As greenhouse gas emissions from food waste have grown 300 percent over the past 50 years, uneaten food has become a major contributor to climate change, which threatens countless species, including the adorable American pika, a small mammal that feeds in alpine meadows.
Food waste hits grizzlies and other bears throughout its lifecycle, from the habitat loss and predator control that goes into producing food that’s never eaten to the deadly attraction of food that’s thrown into garbage cans, luring bears close to human territory.
Fishery discards and food waste in landfills has been shown to subsidize certain species, including western gulls, whose booming population is having a feeding frenzy on already-threatened juvenile steelhead trout.
The Meat of the Matter
Meat production is the single-most environmentally damaging industry on the planet, which means that wasted meat and dairy have a greater environmental impact per pound than wasted grains or fruits and vegetables. It’s not just the end product that’s thrown away, but also all the feed, water, land, pesticides and fossil fuels that went into raising the livestock.
Animal products may only account for 13 percent of global food waste by volume, but they’re responsible for one-third of the greenhouse gas emissions and more than three-quarters of the wasted land associated with food waste.
Every day Americans throw out more than 660 calories from beef, chicken and pork per person. According to a University of Minnesota study, throwing out a pound of boneless beef wastes 24 times more calories than throwing away a pound of wheat. The feed, water and land required to convert plant calories into animal calories makes animal agriculture an inefficient way to feed people. Even more resources are wasted when you consider the loss between the size of the animal and what winds up in the meat department case — for example, only about 40 percent of the weight of a steer becomes hamburgers and steaks.
Eating less meat is a powerful way to reduce your food waste and your environmental footprint.
Seafood With a Side of Bycatch
Seafood accounts for a small amount of the food that’s wasted once it reaches the market, but the journey to get there takes an enormous toll on marine life.
Seafood often isn’t included in the impact of food waste on climate and land use, but the industry’s impact on ocean ecosystems can’t be ignored. Bycatch refers to the non-targeted fish and other animals caught or killed by fishing gear — in other words, the seafood industry’s waste.
In the United States, 10 percent to 12 percent of what’s caught by commercial fisheries is bycatch; some fisheries, such as shrimp trawling, can be as high as 64 percent bycatch. This adds up to as much as 714 million pounds of wasted fish, sea turtles, dolphins, whales and other marine animals caught in the seafood industry’s nets each year. Globally, as much as 40 percent of the world’s catch may be wasted bycatch.
Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the fastest-growing threats to large whales on the West Coast. Between 2014 and 2015, the record number of large whales reported entangled in fishing gear in California, Oregon and Washington doubled from 30 to 61, including humpback whales, gray whales, fin whales, a blue whale and a killer whale.
You can help tackle seafood waste by supporting stronger fishery management and closure of the most destructive fisheries, expanding endangered species and critical habitat protection for marine animals threatened by commercial fishing, and eating less seafood.
Time to Take a Bite Out of Food Waste
The best way to address food waste is to stop it from happening in the first place — preventing food waste has twice the lifecycle greenhouse gas benefit per ton compared to recycling food. While programs such as composting are preferable to food waste winding up in a landfill, they don’t address the emissions, land, water, pesticides and other threats to wildlife that went into producing the uneaten food.
The majority of food waste in the United States happens once food hits the shelves, where it’s either thrown out by businesses or at the home. Policies are needed to standardize date labeling, keep edible food on shelves longer and make it easier to donate food to those in need. Businesses and individuals need to shift their buying practices to minimize the amount of uneaten food that gets thrown away on farms, in stores and restaurants and in homes.
By increasing public understanding about food waste, we can save as much as 281 billion gallons of water and the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking nearly half a million cars off the road. Better understanding food waste — and what to do about it — will not only reduce your own footprint, but will help create the demand that businesses and policymakers need to curb food waste.
Keep Food Weird
More than 80 percent of food waste in the United States happens in restaurants, cafeterias, supermarkets and homes, and much of that waste is simply because food is, well, misunderstood. From confusing date labels to ugly-but-tasty produce, misconceptions about what people can — and will — eat result in millions of tons of food being thrown out every year.
Whether you hate the idea of waste or love the idea of creative cooking, you can join the counterculture to end food waste.
4 Steps to Eating Weird
1) Embrace the Unusual
Produce doesn’t need to look perfect to taste perfectly fine, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at your average supermarket display. Show some love for fruits and vegetables that defy conventional standards by buying “ugly produce” instead of falling for false beauty. Retailers can get creative with underappreciated fruits and vegetables by selling them at a discount and using them in pre-cut and prepared foods.
2) Appreciate the Whole Picture
When some parts of a plant are seen as more desirable than others, the rest of it — along with everything that went into growing it — often goes to waste. Look beyond the broccoli florets and give the stalks a chance, too. When you’re slicing beets, try sautéing the greens on the side. Appreciate the weirder parts of plants by putting your culinary skills to the test from root to tip.
3) Let Your Creative Juices Flow
Once it goes in the blender, no one knows whether your produce started out looking a little odd or was a day or two on the other side of ripeness. Use your weird produce for juices or smoothies as a delicious and healthy way to hide its blemishes and avoid throwing away food when you might have bought more than you needed for the week. Overripe bananas are perfect for baking, and you can freeze most foods from avocado to zucchini for future creative cuisine.
4) Don’t Let Your Food Get Funky
The key to reducing the food waste in your life is to buy what you need and use what you buy. Check your fridge before you go shopping, plan your meals and keep the food you need to eat first front-and-center so you don’t forget about it. The USDA’s FoodKeeper database (available online and as a mobile app) provides advice on how best to store different types of food and how long they’ll stay fresh:
It’s estimated that 266,000 tons of food are wasted just because of the way the food looks. It’s time to take back the produce section and stop throwing away food for superficial reasons.
Demand Standardized Date Labels
If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between a “sell by” date, a “use by” date or a “best by” date, you’re not alone. Many people and retailers rely on these date labels to tell them when food is no longer fresh, but with the exception of infant formula, there’s no federal standard for what date labels mean. As a result unregulated dates lead to food that’s perfectly good getting tossed in the trash. ReFED estimates that by simply standardizing date labeling, we can save more than 1.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions and 192 billion gallons of water.