Wasted food has multiple consequences for people and the planet

One third of all food produced worldwide goes to waste resulting in continued world hunger and adverse effects to the environment.

One third of all food produced worldwide goes to waste resulting in continued world hunger and adverse effects to the environment. Photo credit: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

One third of all food produced worldwide goes to waste resulting in continued world hunger and adverse effects to the environment. Photo credit: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Researchers from the USDA’s Economic Research Service examined food waste numbers from 2010 (the last year the data was published). As reported by National Public Radio, in the United States alone, 133 billion pounds of food was lost in 2010. This represents 31 percent of the total food supply with a value of about $161.6 billion.

Viewing this loss from a caloric perspective, the USDA researchers determined that 141 trillion calories were wasted. That’s about 1,249 calories per person, per day. Let’s compare that figure with the USDA calorie recommendation for adults who are between the ages of 31 to 50 and are not physically active. For women, the recommended caloric intake is 1,800 calories; for men it is 2,200 calories per day. Clearly, too much food is being wasted in America!

Globally, too many people are not consuming enough food to maintain a healthy life. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates “nearly 870 million people of the 7.1 billion people in the world, or one in eight, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012. Almost all the hungry people, 852 million, live in developing countries, representing 15 percent of the population of developing countries. There are 16 million people undernourished in developed countries.”

According to United Technologies’ Chief Sustainability Officer John Mandyck, the way food is wasted depends on whether a country is industrialized (developed) or developing. In industrialized countries, such as the United States, most food is wasted because consumers buy too much food, do not eat it and throw it away. Other contributors are retailers who discard over ripe or blemished food and restaurants who throw away food that is prepared, served and left uneaten on plates.

Developing countries, such as those in Africa, waste food for an entirely different reason. Mandyck says, “The food never makes it out of harvest. It rots on the field because there isn’t a good transportation infrastructure, or if it’s transported, it’s transported in poor conditions to a wet market, an outdoor market, where the food rots waiting for consumers to buy it.” He and others are working to create the Global Food Cold Chain Council which plans to develop a system of refrigerated trucks, trailers and containers in developing countries to keep food cool while being transported and stored for retail sale.

Aside from reducing food waste to increase the availability of food worldwide, there is another important consideration….. climate change. Rotting food, often trucked to landfills, gives off methane. According to the U.S Environmental Protection Agency, methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the U.S. from human activities. What is the connection between greenhouse gasses and climate change? Simply put, increasing amounts of greenhouse gasses in the earth’s atmosphere let light energy in but don’t allow heat energy to escape. This is a phenomenon similar to what occurs in a greenhouse, hence the term “greenhouse effect” and leads to increasing warming of the planet. For a scientific explanation, read about the greenhouse gas basics.

Michigan State University Extension provides tips on reducing food waste in your household, as well as programming in the areas of Climate Change and Variability and Community Food Systems. You can also find an expert in your area to answer your questions.

Photo credit: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

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