World Environment Day: Food Waste

By Tasha Eichenseher | June 5, 2013 8:22 am

World Environment Day is one of those well-intentioned U.N. designations — an annual celebration meant to bring awareness to a global resource problem. This year it is an issue near and dear to my heart: food waste.

World Environment Day: Food Waste poster

A poster for this year’s World Environment Day. Illustration courtesy of the United Nations Environment Programme.

I’ve written about the water footprint, and general arrogance, of food waste a couple of times before, for Water Currents:

365 Trillion Gallons of Water Thrown Away With Our Food Every Year

Waste Food, Waste Water — A Message From World Water Week

But will recap some of the stats floating around:

  • According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, about 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year.
  • A third to a half of all food grown globally either sits untouched on our plates or rots before it even gets there. A recent report from the Stockholm International Water Institute states that 40 percent of food purchased in the U.S. is thrown away.
  • This is a horrible habit when you consider that nearly one billion people in the world already suffer from hunger and malnourishment. (I realize there are distribution issues at play — both more broadly related to resource allocation and then more locally within our food systems. But to not appreciate what you have, when it comes to the essentials, feels like a crime.)
  • In what some experts have called a Goldilocks problem, under nourishment is still a huge problem in some areas, while overeating is increasing in others. (Can obesity sometimes be considered a form of food waste?)
  • The number of human mouths to feed is expected to grown by 2 billion before 2050 and the same amount of water we use today—often already found in scarce amounts in many places—will have to be stretched to support all of the food and energy needs that come with an expanding population.
  • A paper published a few years ago in the journal Environmental Science and Technology estimated the energy losses associated with food waste in the U.S. (And maybe there are more updated data on this.) At the time, the energy required for food production, transportation, processing, sales, storage and preparation was between 8,000 and 9,000 BTUs in 2007, or about 2 percent of American annual energy consumption. And 30 percent of this was thrown away with our food. (The calculation didn’t include the energy used to pump, distribute and treat any water used in irrigation or processing.)
  • Water losses through food waste occur at home, but they also happen through inefficient food harvesting, transport, distribution, processing and storage methods.

Solutions to our food (and water and energy) waste issues include improving efficiencies in food delivery and storage; reducing food waste at the table; using traditional plant breeding techniques, and possibly genetic engineering, to improve the efficiency of plants; switching to more water-friendly forms of irrigation, such as drip; and recycling waste water (for additional irrigation or other gray water uses), and even the food itself, via composting.




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Water Works

Water Works is a forum for telling stories about where our drinking water and food come from. It traces tap water back to its source, demystifies tales of pollution, dissects infrastructure, digs into soil quality, explores efficient farming, touches on energy and climate issues, and gets to the root of predicted food and water security problems.

About Tasha Eichenseher

Tasha Eichenseher is a senior editor at Discover magazine, where she produces print and digital stories and manages the Discover blogging network . With more than a decade of science journalism experience, Tasha has spent the last few years focused on writing and editing content about water. Before moving back to Wisconsin, she helped to launch National Geographic's freshwater initiative, website, and news series, and blogged for Water Currents. In 2011 and 2012, she studied water law, wastewater treatment and aquatic ecosystems as a Ted Scripps Environmental Journalism Fellow at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She takes her water with whiskey.


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