Something is rotten in today’s society – literally rotten. It is the perfectly good food we waste each day at different parts of our food system. But surely, with all this talk of resource scarcity that affects our use of water and land, or the emphasis on sustainable development, a key parameter of eradicating malnutrition, we must have been looking at our food system and identifying ways to make it more efficient.
And yet, today, about a third of all the food produced every year gets lost or is wasted. This is 1.3 billion tons of food, and roughly 30 percent of the agricultural area is used to produce it , while every night 870 million malnourished people go to bed very hungry! A staggering statistic which costs industrialized countries $680 billion and developing countries $310 billion .
In terms of environmental impacts, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world, after China and the U.S . This food waste is the single largest component going into municipal landfills where it creates 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. The consumption of water used to produce this wasted food could fill Lake Geneva three times over .
No one has been able to quantify the effects of using this extra land for agriculture, though certainly the expansion into wild areas has created a biodiversity loss. The industrial agriculture practices of spreading harsh fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides, using machinery heavily dependent upon fossil fuels, which add into the tally of unnecessary damage.
The meat and poultry processing businesses also contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions. Mono-cropping also upsets the predator-prey balance of insects, birds and animals in a normally diverse area. And it encourages the unchecked growth of fungi and molds.
How and why are we wasting so much food? Here are some facts on food loss and wasting that will help clarify the situation we are in.
Some interesting facts about food waste
The facts around food waste and its destruction of the environment are astounding. Just some of the worst of these are listed below:
- Almost 55 million tonnes of food is wasted every single year in the USA alone! Over 97 percent of the USA’s food waste is placed in landfill .
- In 2017, food waste with almost 22 percent was the most prevalent material entering landfills in the U.S. 
- In 2010, less than three percent of food waste was either recovered or recycled .
- According to a study by the Pennsylvania State University, food waste costs an average American family of four people at least $1,866 every single year .
- Each year, 4.5 million tons of food is wasted in the UK, costing an average family £700 .
- Total amount of food produced in the sub-Saharan Africa equals the amount of food that is wasted by consumers in the developed countries .
What kind of food do we waste?
We are fairly indiscriminate in the kind of food we waste, but roots and tubers as well as fruit and vegetables are on the top of the list with 45 percent of yearly production going to waste .
This is almost half of what we cultivate in the first place. It is equivalent to 1 billion bags of potatoes or 3.7 trillion apples .
Statistics for other food stuff are not more encouraging, unfortunately.
We waste about:
- 35 percent of fish and seafood
- 30 percent of cereals
- 20 percent of dairy, meat and oil seeds and pulses 
Where does the most food waste happen?
Most of us will have thrown away vegetables or other products that we forgot at the back of our fridge until it was too late to eat them. And while such a scenario does not sound implausible for most western countries, studies reveal that both industrialized and developing countries generate roughly the same amount of food waste: 670 and 630 million tonnes respectively .
The main difference is where the food loss takes place.
In developing countries 40 percent of losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels, while in industrialized countries more than 40 percent of losses happen at retail and consumer levels .
Why does food waste happen?
Statistics and facts will probably not provide the full spectrum of reasons why we are generating so much food waste.
In developing countries, the necessary processes, transport links and know-how is not available, while in industrialized countries food waste usually occurs as a result of consumption patterns and consumer behavior.
What is particularly striking is that even perfectly good food sometimes does not reach our table because it is not considered “beautiful” enough.
In the UK alone, 20 to 40 percent of fruit and vegetables end up being wasted or at best given as animal feed, ploughed back into the land or sent to landfill. This is because those products did not meet retailer and supermarket standards because they were misshapen .
Retailers and supermarkets will tell you that consumers want beautiful looking fruit of a standard shape, size and color, so there is not space for odd ones.
What can we do to address food waste?
Even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted globally could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.
If you break figures down by region, eradicating food waste altogether would mean that we could feed 600 million people with the food saved in Latin America and Africa, whereas with the food waste in Europe we could feed another 200 million [12,13].
Radical changes are needed to eradicate food waste – but we need to look at our food production system as a whole.
- Do our farmers get a fair income for their produce or do retailers and other actors get the lion’s share of the profits?
- How are consumers educated when it comes to their weekly grocery shopping?
At the same time, on an individual level we can deliver change by changing our own behavior.
For instance, we can plan our meals better to reduce the amount of food that goes to the bin, ensure we only buy what we need rather than purchase items on the basis of deals or seek out farmers’ markets where products of all different sizes and shapes are available – in all likelihood, prices will be lower there too.
Effective strategies to reduce food wasting
The problem of food waste has captured attention globally and many countries are taking measures to minimize the problem and its consequent adverse effects on the environment.
Addressing the hunger issue at the same time is recognized as the most ideal solution. Accordingly, there are a number of people and businesses along the way that can change practices to reduce the waste and transfer what can be used to those who need it.
#1 Achieving zero hunger through sustainable food systems
In 2012, the United Nations Secretary General issued a Zero Hunger Challenge, reflecting five general measures to end hunger, eliminate all forms of malnutrition, and build inclusive and sustainable food systems.
The challenge embraces a holistic vision with five stated goals.
- Creating sustainable food systems, from production to consumption. Sustainable means that the actions involved in the processes do not have an adverse environmental impact.
- Rural poverty can be eliminated from moving away from the vision of large-scale agriculture toward small locally-owned farms providing fresh, nutritious food. This will minimize transportation costs and chances of spoilage, reduce the adverse environmental impacts of monoculture and provide locals with a much-needed income.
- Adapt all food systems to eliminate loss or waste of food.
- Access adequate food for healthy diets for all people, all year round.
This will result in the final stated goal: end malnutrition in all its forms.
#2 Europe’s innovative strategies to reduce food waste
A few European countries and cities have made news for innovative solutions.
Selling ugly vegetables and fruits with discount
One is the Intermarche supermarket chain in France. Noting that the ugly vegetables and fruits are passed over for the more picture-perfect ones in the produce section, resulting in almost 100% waste, the retail chain decided to segregate the produce.
It created a special aisle for the less-than-perfect ones, advertising them as such and offering discounts. This quickly became very popular and the retailer as a whole noted 24 percent more foot traffic in the stores, which is attributed to this marketing strategy.
Recycling waste food to provide heat and electricity
Edinburgh, Scotland mandates that businesses participate in an eco-food recycling program.
The waste food, separated from the garden waste component is collected and processed at an aerobic digestion plant. There, the food is processed into a liquid and fed into large tanks in the absence of oxygen. This liquid food undergoes a natural biological process during the next 30 days where it breaks down into methane and carbon dioxide gases.
The methane is then used as a fuel to feed a specially designed combustion engine that generates heat and electricity. The heat is used as part of the AD process and the electricity is exported to the grid for use by homes and businesses across the country.
Some AD plants just clean up the methane and inject the gas straight into the gas grid to mix with natural gas. This gas is then used in homes and businesses for heating and cooking. AD also generates large volumes of liquid that is used by local farmers as a natural fertilizer.
Municipal composting program
Residents of Edinburgh are not required to separate the garden waste from food waste. It is all collected together by the City, which then composts it for agriculture, landscaping and horticulture.
The city, like many others also has a very active co-op offering fresh fruit and vegetable delivery for a subscription. The profits go toward helping poor people eat better.
#3 EPA’s Food challenge for businesses and organizations
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Departments of Agriculture are working hand-in-hand to address the issue of food wasting.
The EPA goals are to:
- Reduce food waste by improving product development, storage, shipping/ordering, marketing, labeling and cooking methods.
- Recover food waste by connecting potential food donor to hunger relief organizations. The EPA has specifically issued guidance to manufacturers and importers on donating misbranded or sub-spec foods.
- Recycle by composting and creating bioenergy and natural fertilizers.
The EPA and USDA food challenge is addressed to businesses, organizations and governments. On the forefront of rising to the challenge are the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, an alliance of food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants; the Grocery Manufacturers Association; and the National Restaurant Association.