The food we waste could end hunger
How much food goes to waste and how we could use our abundance to feed everyone.
Nobody buys food at the grocery store just to throw it away. But many of us, for a variety of reasons, do waste a lot of food. And it’s not just a problem of uneaten leftovers or veggies going bad in the fridge: stores, restaurants, transportation companies and even farms themselves are significant sources of food waste. In fact, as a country, the U.S. wastes up to 1,000 pounds of food per person each year.
Many of us learned to see food through the lens of scarcity: that there isn’t enough to feed everyone and that people go hungry because insufficient supply increases prices, putting food outside people’s financial reach. And while it is true that some people struggle to put enough food on the table, it is not because there isn’t enough. There is more than enough food to go around. And that is more than enough reason to care about food waste.
The U.S. throws away roughly 35% of its total food supply each year. All that wasted food could feed the tens of millions of hungry Americans many times over.
When we waste food, we’re throwing away everything that went into providing that food. In the U.S. alone, wasted food – whether grown or raised – results in a colossal waste of resources. Every year, the resources committed to wasted food include:
- Land: over 140 million acres of agricultural land, an area the size of California and New York state combined;
- Water: 5.9 trillion gallons of fresh water, equivalent to the water use of well over a third of all U.S. households;
- Energy: 664 terawatt-hours of energy, enough to power over 50 million U.S. homes for a year;
- Fertilizer: 14 billion pounds of fertilizers, which the Environmental Protection Agency estimates is enough to grow all of the fruits, vegetables and grains grown and consumed in America each year.
Wasting food also has an enormous environmental cost. In the U.S., farmers use 778 million pounds of pesticides each year growing food that is later wasted, pesticides that can threaten pollinators and endangered species (not to mention human health). The fertilizers used on wasted (and consumed) food can wash off of farmland and into waterways, killing fish and other aquatic life and causing toxic algae blooms. Animals whose flesh we waste, and there are billions and billions of them, contribute to the widespread problem of water pollution from industrial farming. And food waste drives climate change, with the production of wasted food and the waste itself contributing 4% of annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
This is not just an American problem. The United Nations estimates that, every year, one third of all food produced worldwide – 1.3 billion metric tons of food worth about $1 trillion – goes to waste during harvesting and transportation or is thrown away. According to the World Food Programme, “Right now, the world produces enough food to nourish every child, woman and man on the planet. … All the food produced but never eaten would be sufficient to feed two billion people. That’s more than twice the number of undernourished people across the globe.”*
Just as in the U.S., food waste has real impacts globally. Across the world, the food sector accounts for 30% of energy consumption and 22% of greenhouse gas emissions; food that goes to waste is responsible for 3.3 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year. The land used to grow food that ends up wasted accounts for nearly 30% of all agricultural land in the world. Farming uses a huge proportion of global water supplies, is a major source of water pollution from fertilizer and pesticide runoff, and one of the largest global threats to biodiversity.
All that is to say, if we reduced the waste, we could (with the right distribution system) theoretically feed the world on the same amount of food we produce now – or even less. Less waste and a better distribution system would also let us handle a likely population increase while shrinking the amount of land needed for new agriculture and reducing deforestation, biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and water pollution.
If we achieved that, what else might become possible? By focusing less on generating more food and more on the wise use of the food we have, we could also concentrate on producing food that is better for us and better for the environment.
We need a food system that – instead of incentivizing the production of ever-more low-quality food – prioritizes producing nutritious food for everyone and using everything that is produced.
One piece of the reform needed is implementable solutions. Recommendations from groups like U.S. PIRG and ReFED include tracking waste, matching production and inventory to demand, finding uses for things that often get discarded, improving farming and distribution practices, and reshaping the way people interact with food. ReFED calculates that, each year in the U.S., their solutions could reduce food waste by 45 million tons, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 75 million metric tons, save 4 trillion gallons of water, and recover enough food to provide 4 billion meals to those in need, resulting in $73 billion in annual net financial benefit.
Some of these kinds of solutions are already being implemented, in the U.S. and around the world. France, for instance, passed and then expanded a law requiring grocery stores, large food service operations and other pieces of the food industry to donate unused food instead of throwing it away. A Nigerian inventor created a solar-powered cold storage system to help farmers keep produce fresh, waste less of it and sell more. And a Brazilian non-profit helps teach people how to use every part of the food they buy so that nothing goes to waste.
But we need large-scale solutions, not just community-by-community efforts, which will require a collective recognition of the facts and the problem. Because the biggest barrier to ending hunger in the U.S. and around the world is our failure, thus far, to get the food we have to where it’s needed, letting it go to waste instead.
* Though the world grows enough calories to feed every person, it is possible that the nutrient composition of the food produced is not such that it would adequately nourish every person.
Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Bryn Huxley-Reicher is a policy analyst at Frontier Group focusing on issues related to clean energy and the new economy. He has a BA in applied mathematics focused in earth and planetary sciences from Harvard University.
Food & Agriculture, Advocate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Danielle works to ensure our food system produces enough nutritious food to feed everyone, without threatening our health, the planet, or the ability of future generations to grow food. Danielle lives in Chicago, where she enjoys staying active in the outdoors, trying out new recipes, and writing short stories.