Why Food Waste is a Serious Problem — and What You Can Do About It

Think food waste is too big a problem for you to solve? Think again! Learn why wasting food is a problem you should care about and how the small changes you make can add up to a big impact.

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One of life’s greatest pleasures — and its greatest necessities — is food. The system humans have created to plant, grow, harvest, ship, sell, gather, and prepare food from field to our plates is nothing short of a miracle. And for more than a third of the world’s population, the production of food is also a source of primary income (mine included).

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” — James Beard

Yet a third of the food grown in the world today is wasted. Compare that with the staggering fact that more than 800 million people in the world are hungry and more than 35% of food is wasted, and it’s clear that there are serious flaws in our food system and the way we grow, gather, and consume food.

The fact is that people who need food are not getting it, and the food that is not being consumed is heating up the planet.

You may be wondering, why should you care about food waste? And how can one person have an impact on such a huge, global problem? Read on to learn why you should make reducing food losses a priority.

Why is food waste an issue? Who are the world’s biggest wasters of food?

vegetable scraps on a white table with salt, pepper, and a soup pot for vegetable broth

The food we waste is not without consequence — the world’s wasted food contributes 4.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, which is about 8% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. If food waste was ranked with country’s, it would be the third biggest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter in the world, behind China and the United States (source: World Resources Institute).

Food waste is affects all parts of the world, both high- and low-income countries. It is a non-discriminatory problem — we all play a role in causing it, and we can all play a role solving in the problem. Here’s how:

  • In lower income areas, the main driver of wasted food is poor infrastructure such as bad roads, lack of refrigeration and storage, faulty equipment, and inadequate food packaging. Food that is wasted in low-income countries usually happens in the beginning of the food chain, usually spoiling on farm or while in distribution or storage.
  • In higher income areas, however, food waste in the early stages of the supply chain (farms, distribution, storage) are minimal. Instead, food losses are more deliberate: food is rejected by grocery retailers because of bruises or discoloration, or too much food is ordered by restaurants or retailers and not bought or served. Or consumers (you and me) mismanage the food we purchase by buying too much or throw food away because we don’t understand expiration dates.

Whatever the reason, food waste is a global problem that produces methane gases at all stages of the food chain — seeds, water, energy, land, labor — in every party of the world.

How can we as individuals tackle the global food wastage problem?

a horizontal ratio photo of a hand with a pineapple tattoo holding a pineapple with a white background

It can be easy to hear the statistics about environmental crises like food waste and climate change and have a “head in the sand” reaction; the problem seems too big to tackle, so why even try?

But food waste is a problem that can be solved. Even if the problem seems bigger than what you as an individual can do, there are things you can do to mitigate food waste that can have a big impact.

According to the researchers behind the best-selling climate change book Drawdown, in lower income regions, reducing food waste will involve:

  • Improving infrastructure to streamline the storage, processing, and transportation of food
  • Strengthening farmer and produce organization for better food system efficiency
  • Providing fair wages to small farmers to reduce exploitation and increase food system transparency

The problems of low income countries may seem unrealistic for you as an individual to tackle, but there are simple steps you can take to help:

  • Buy fair trade whenever possible. Many of our favorite food staples such as coffee, tea, bananas, and chocolate are grown in countries with forced labor and very poor wages. Choosing fair trade means you’re doing your part as a consumer to decrease the exploitation of marginalized farm workers globally.
  • Consider giving to organizations that help to strengthen food systems in developing countries. Check out Food Tank’s list of organizations fighting food loss and waste both domestically and around the world..

How can we reduce food waste in our own homes?

eco-friendly food storage jars on a white table to reduce food waste

Every step you take to reduce the amount of food you waste in the home and every time you use your voice to let grocery retailers, restaurants, and other large food distributors know that you value food use efficiency is chipping away at the problem.

According to Drawdown, in higher income regions (likely where you live), reducing food waste will involve:

  • Reducing food loss at the retail and consumer level
  • Reallocating unwanted food to those in need, or for another use (animal feed, etc.)
  • Standardizing date labeling to reduce consumer confusion

Thankfully, there is a lot you can do to reduce food waste in your own home and in your community, including:

  • Start meal planning. Creating a weekly meal plan will help you reduce your family’s food waste, streamline your shopping trips, and save you money. Here’s a downloadable guide about creating (and stick to) a weekly meal plan.
  • Organizing your pantry and refrigerator. Keep your home’s food organized means you’ll waste less food overall (older food is eaten first, which reduces potential spoilage).
  • Buy old and “ugly” produce. Buy imperfect produce from your grocery store or farmer’s market; this tells food vendors you don’t mind fruit with bruises or blemishes (check out the salad recipe we made from ugly produce rejected from grocery stores).
  • Support food banks and other food reallocation programs. Give your time by volunteering or consider making a donation to organizations that will distribute unwanted food to those who really need it.
  • Get smart about expiration labels. Educating yourself on the meaning of food expiration dates so “sell by”, “consume by”, and “best by” dates are not confusing.
  • Learn all you can about the food system. Knowledge is power and knowledge also lets you make informed food choices. Read up on food system issues and how you can do your part (or just follow along here on Fork in the Road and I’ll help guide you!)

While these tips may seem simple, they add up to big results: more food use, less food waste, less time gathering food, and more money saved. Not to mention less impact on the planet!

Food waste is a huge problem facing the world today — but it’s not one without a solution.

The biggest impact you can have is to do your part to gather, keep, and prepare food efficiently in your own home, and to support the organizations doing the hard world of strengthening the world’s food systems globally. It’s the little steps every day that add up to big changes!

How are you doing your part to reduce food waste? How can you do better? Leave a comment below and let us know!

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