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The Issue: Food Waste

Although the United Nations (UN) estimates that one in nine people in the world do not have sufficient food access, about 1/3 of all food produced is lost or wasted.[1][2] In the U.S., a 15% reduction in food waste could feed 25 million Americans.[3] Globally, if even just ¼ of lost food was saved, 870 million more people could be fed.[4] The World Bank approximates that, with the growing global population, the demand for food will increase by 50% between 2009 and 2030.[5] However, this could be diminished if we instituted means of reducing our current, global waste. The environmental costs are a factor as well. The worldwide resources that it requires to produce our food include 40% of our land, 70% of our freshwater, and 30% of our energy.[6] As waste occurs along the food supply chain, we must also consider the expenditure of the natural resources and energy it takes to process, transport, store, and cook this food.

A 2013 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) report indicated that agricultural production is responsible for the greatest amount of food wastage volume, with 54% of this waste occurring “upstream” during production, post-harvest handling, and storage, while 46% happens “downstream” amid processing, distribution, and consumption.[7] Developing countries suffer more of these “upstream” losses due to financial and structural limitations on harvesting techniques, problems with storage or transport infrastructure, and climate conditions that are more favorable for food spoilage.[8] “Downstream” losses are more prevalent in higher income regions, due a lack of communication in supply chains and consumer behavior.[9]

Food waste not only prevents adequate food access and security for communities around the world, but also creates a significant, negative impact on our global carbon and water footprint, land use, and biodiversity.

  • Carbon Footprint: By the time food has reached the consumption phase of the food cycle, greenhouse gas emissions have been produced to grow, store, process, distribute, and cook the food. Global food waste along this cycle is the third largest source of carbon dioxide after the USA and China.[10]
  • Water Footprint: Consumption of agricultural products is responsible for 92% of humanity’s water footprint, and, in 2007, this accounted for 250km3 of water wasted: about 3.6 times the water footprint of all U.S. consumption.[11]
  • Land Use: In 2007, the total amount of food wastage occupied almost 1.4 billion hectares, which is equal to 28% of the world’s agricultural land.[12] However, this surface area does not account for other land and environmental impacts, such as deforestation, urbanization, and soil sealing/land degradation.
  • Biodiversity: Deforestation and destruction of natural ecosystems is a serious problem for the preservation of species diversity on Earth. Agriculture itself is responsible for 66% of threats to species, with the harshest impacts of food production on biodiversity occurring in lower-income regions.[13]

The FAO has identified a number of priority areas and methods for prevention of food loss and waste throughout the food chain. The greatest focuses include diminishing crop losses on farms due to poor practices, organizing food surplus reuse through secondary markets or donations to feed livestock, and food waste recycling and recovery.[14] On the production end, refined harvest, storage, and transport processes combined with new technologies can help reduce food loss. “Downstream,” farmers can join in cooperatives and associations to increase their market understanding and planning, and businesses and homes can audit their scale of waste.[15] These practices would ensure a match between supply and demand. When it comes to food retail and consumption, recommended strategies have included a relaxation on produce aesthetic requirements, and government action in the form of raised landfill taxes.[16]

Food waste in the U.S.

A study by the Stockholm International Water Institution found that the United States produces enough food to sustain 860 million people – more than twice the amount that is needed to feed the country’s population – yet one out of six Americans go hungry.[17],[18] America wastes about 50% of its produce, 130 billion pounds of food, and, therefore, $160 billion each year.[19],[20] Consumer food waste in 2016 is up 50% from the 1970s, with a family of four discarding around $1,500 a year on food.[21]

Food waste is the single biggest component of American landfills, and is a significant source of methane gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas with 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, and landfills in the U.S. account for over 20% of all methane emissions.[22] Additionally, wasting food also wastes the resources that were used to produce that food, and causes unnecessary greenhouse emissions. The growing, manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of food results in 31% of greenhouses gases in the U.S.[23] As food waste increases, production does so as well to keep up with demand, and the output of these greenhouses gases continues. However, there are ways to utilize this food waste. Instead of piling it in landfills, food recycling and composting can be beneficial to soil health, and reduce the need for water, pesticide, and fertilizer inputs.[24] Methods of anaerobic digestion (microorganisms breaking down biodegradable material without oxygen) can be used to transform organic waste into electricity and heat.[25]

Part of American waste is driven by relatively cheap food prices in the U.S., arising from subsidies to items like corn, milk, and wheat. Additionally, our culture is overly concerned with the aesthetic quality of our produce. Consumers only want to purchase the “nice-looking” fruits and vegetables. As a result, many producers and food distributors will trash any items that appear subpar – even if they are perfectly good to eat. Furthermore, 70% of surveyed Americans say they throw away food after the package expiration date, and 60% believed food waste was necessary to ensure that meals are fresh, but research has shown that expiration and “best-by” dates are largely arbitrary and unregulated.[26] According to the National Resources Defense Council, these dates do not indicate consumption safety, and should not be the indicator of when to dispose of food.[27]

To end waste at the retailer and consumer level, in 2015 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced the national goal for a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030.[28] This goal builds on the Food Recovery Challenge launched by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011, and the USDA & EPA US Food Waste Challenge launched in 2013. Together, these challenges offer participants technical assistance to help improve sustainable food management practices, and provide a list of activities about the best ways to reduce, recover, and recycle food waste.[29]

More than half of Americans surveyed indicated that they were aware of the food waste problem, and 60% understood that it is harmful to the environment.[30] Yet 42% said that they did not have time to worry about it, and 51% said that it would be difficult to reduce their household waste.[31] However, there are a number of steps that you can take as a consumer. Plan out your shopping ahead of time to avoid buying items that you do not need, buy the “ugly” fruits and vegetables, and hold onto items until they truly go bad (not just until their “best-before” dates). The USDA’s FoodKeeper Mobile App is a great source for food storage advice to help customers preserve their food quality. You can also check out a full list of our tips for being food waste-conscious and living sustainability here!














Image source: Pete



[1] Dana Paslowski, “The Environmental Impact of Food Waste,” Move for Hunger, May 11, 2015, accessed October 25, 2016, https://moveforhunger.org/the-environmental-impact-of-food-waste/.

[2] “Food wastage footprint: Impacts on natural resources,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2013, accessed October 25, 2016, http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3347e/i3347e.pdf.

[3] “Food Waste: Causes, Effects, and Solutions,” Farm Together Now, November 8, 2014, accessed October 25, 2016, https://farmtogethernow.org/2014/11/08/food-waste-causes-effects-and-solutions/.

[4] “Save Food: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, accessed October 25, 2016,


[5] Kyra K. Payne, “The Consequences of Food Waste,” Inquiries Journal 6, no. 4 (2014): 1-3, accessed October 25, 2016, http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/890/the-consequences-of-food-waste.

[6] “Food Waste,” Farm Together Now.

[7] “Food wastage footprint.” FAO.

[8] “Food waste harms climate, water, land and biodiversity – new FAO report,” United Nations Environment Programme, September 11, 2013, accessed October 25, 2016, http://www.unep.org/newscentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2726&ArticleID=9611.

[9] “Food wastage footprint.” FAO.

[10]“Food waste harms climate, water, land and biodiversity,” UNEP.


[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Payne, “The Consequences of Food Waste.”

[18] Adam Chandler, “Why Americans Lead the World in Food Waste,” The Atlantic, July 15, 2016, accessed October 25, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/07/american-food-waste/491513/.

[19] Chandler, “Why Americans Lead the World in Food Waste.”

[20] Amrith Ramkumar, “America Wastes $160 Billion in Food Every Year But Is Too Busy to Stop,” Bloomberg, July 22, 2016, accessed October 25, 2016, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-22/america-wastes-160-billion-in-food-every-year-but-is-too-busy-to-stop.

[21] Heesun Wee, “We check out 31% of our food supply: How to stop the waste,” CNBC, March 4, 2016, accessed October 25, 2016, http://www.cnbc.com/2016/03/04/how-to-stop-american-waste-of-food.html.

[22] “The Effects of Food Waste in America,” Food Cycle Science, March 26, 2015, accessed October 25, 2016, https://nofoodwaste.com/blog/2015/03/26/effects-food-waste-america.

[23] “The Effects of Food Waste in America,” Food Cycle Science.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Wee, “We check out 31% of our food supply.”

[26] Ramkumar, “America Wastes $160 Billion in Food Every Year.”

[27] “Food Waste,” Farm Together Now.

[28] “U.S. Food Waste Challenge Frequently Asked Questions,” United States Department of Agriculture, accessed October 25, 2016, http://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/faqs.htm.

[29] “U.S. Food Waste Challenge Frequently Asked Questions,” USDA.

[30]Ramkumar, “America Wastes $160 Billion in Food Every Year.”

[31] Ibid.

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